DAYTON, Ohio — Rick Pitino has as glamorous an NCAA Tournament résumé as anyone: A national championship, the third-best tourney winning percentage among active coaches, and five Final Fours with three different teams.
But one thing he probably didn't want on his profile was to be the first coach in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed.
That seemed a possibility at halftime with the Cards clinging to a precarious two-point lead.
The Cardinals eased any tension by starting the second half on a 15-4 run that allowed them to take control and coast to a 74-54 win in Midwest Regional first-round action at the University of Dayton Arena. Louisville (29-5) will now face the winner of Friday night's Ohio State-Siena game in Sunday's second round.
Pitino said he kept his composure at halftime, and was more complimentary of Morehead's play than he was critical of his own team.
"We didn't play bad in the first half; we shot 50 percent, but they hung right there with us," Pitino said. "I just told them (at halftime), 'Don't be nervous. We're up two. We'll be fine. Just don't panic.' So often you don't want to give the other team credit and say what went wrong. But Morehead was terrific."
U of L senior Andre McGee was the catalyst for Louisville's big second-half run. McGee scored eight points and dished out four assists, but it was his relentless pressure defense that led to five steals and helped wear down Morehead point guard Brandon Shingles.
"Without question, Terrence Williams and Earl Clark are professional athletes, but this young man (McGee) makes our team win," Pitino said. "He's the key. He has a deep passion to win, and what he does is tough to do."
McGee said that a rigorous pre-season conditioning program and practice sessions prepared him for his role as the bird dog chasing opposing point guards all over the floor.
"We've been pressing since I've been here," McGee said. "Coach Pitino is famous for his pressure. I knew to play at Louisville I'd have to play that way, and when you practice two hours pressing, when the game comes you're used to it because you're doing it every day."
Louisville started the game by establishing freshman forward Samardo Samuels in the post. Samuels had seven early points as U of L took a 12-4 lead. Then sidekick Clark went to the bench with two early fouls, and Morehead settled down and slowly got back in the game.
A one-handed follow dunk by Kenneth Faried brought the Eagles to within 19-16, and back-to-back threes by Maze Stallworth tied the game at 22-all. Morehead took a 24-22 lead on a Steve Peterson tip-in with 6:36 left in the first half.
Louisville re-established a seven-point lead at 34-27, but Morehead fought back to trail by two going into the locker room.
"The first half, when we were fresh, we played them possession for possession," Morehead Coach Donnie Tyndall said.
But Louisville's press led to four turnovers and four missed shots on Morehead's first eight possessions of the second half.
Jerry Smith scored on a runout off a McGee steal to make it 41-33, and Clark followed with a bucket to give the Cards a 10-point lead at 16:42. McGee had another steal that set up a Williams three to make it 50-37, and a Demonte Harper turnover led to a McGee corner three that pushed the lead to 57-39 with 12:08 remaining.
"They made a little run and we got kind of tight," Morehead State forward Leon Buchanan said.
"They just wear you down, and their depth and physicality allows them to do that," Tyndall said. "That's been Coach Pitino's M.O. going back to his Providence days."
Samuels led Louisville with 15 points and seven rebounds, and Williams and Clark both came alive in the second half. Williams scored 10 of his 13 points after halftime and added nine rebounds and three assists, while Clark finished with 12 points, five rebounds and five assists after missing most of the first half with two early fouls.
Buchanan had 17 points to lead Morehead. Faried chipped in with 14 points and 11 boards and Stallworth also added 14 with the help of four threes. It was the first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years for the Eagles, who finished 20-16.
"It's been a great season for our team," Tyndall said. "We brought pride and passion back to Morehead State basketball. Unfortunately we ran into maybe the best team in college basketball tonight. We played our hearts out. They were just too much for us in the end."