Louisville remains one of the surest bets to play a big role in March Madness after a late surge kept the Cardinals undefeated after nine games.
There is surely plenty of basketball left to be played and the high-flying Cardinals will face close contests. But their 68-57 victory over UNC Wilmington Sunday proved one thing: That this team is able to fight for a win down the stretch.
Forward Montrezl Harrell had 19 points and 17 rebounds, five on the offensive glass, to keep Louisville in touch with its winning ways.
But it was guard Terry Rozier who scored six of the Cardinals 10 points in a critical stretch in the second half, after the Seahawks had come back to cut the lead to 52-50 in the waning moments.
UNC Wilmington missed 10 of its last 13 shots and the Cardinals showed that they can play a close contest to the wire and finish on a high note.
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Fourth-ranked Louisville has proved its worth against some quality teams, beating No. 14 Ohio State 64-55 at home and downing a struggling Indiana team by 20 points last week.
Harrell has led the way for the Cardinals, averaging almost 17 points with 9.6 rebounds per game. His field goal percentage, at 64 percent, has made him one of the most dominant big mans in college basketball this year.
Rozier is second on the team with 14.6 points per game, followed closely by fellow guard Chris Jones, 13.3 ppg, and combo guard/forward Wayne Blackshear, 13 ppg.
Critical games left
Louisville still faces the bulk of its schedule in a nine-game stretch that includes No. 1 Kentucky, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 2 Duke from Dec. 27 to Jan. 17. That run will determine whether Louisville will be considered among the league's elite by the time March rolls around.
The Atlantic Coast Conference will test the Cardinals, as it does every year. Virginia has risen to being ranked sixth in the nation, plus No. 20 Miami and No.25 Notre Dame aren't easy outs either.
But if the Cardinals can take the lessons out of close wins against the likes of UNC Wilmington, they may be able to pull out the nail-biters against greater competition too - which goes to show why early-season games are so critical to a team's maturation.