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November 20, 2014

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Defending champ Louisville returning to Sweet 16

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Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press

Louisville forward Luke Hancock attempts a 3-pointer over Saint Louis guard Mike McCall Jr. during the first half in a third-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament Saturday, March 22, 2014, in Orlando, Fla.

Updated Saturday, March 22, 2014 | 3:10 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Louisville didn't need a big game from Russ Smith to get back to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Luke Hancock scored 21 points and the defending national champions shrugged off a cold shooting performance to beat Saint Louis 66-51 on Saturday and advance to the round of 16 for the third straight year.

The fourth-seeded Cardinals (31-5) shot under 45 percent, had 19 turnovers and only got 11 points from Smith, their star. It didn't matter with the fifth-seeded Billikens (27-7) going 0 for 15 from 3-point range and struggling to take care of the basketball.

Louisville moves on the Midwest Regional semifinals in Indianapolis against either No. 1 seed Wichita State or No. 8 seed Kentucky. The unbeaten Shockers and Wildcats meet Sunday in St. Louis.

Saint Louis, which has never been to the Sweet 16, lost in the third round for the third consecutive year. Dwayne Evans led the Billikens with 16 points and Atlantic 10 player of the year Jordair Jett finished with 15.

Chris Jones made a couple of huge shots and scored 11 points for Louisville. Montrezl Harrell put a punctuation mark on the victory with a dunk that enabled him to finish with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino improved to 50-16 in the NCAA tournament, including 41-6 when his team is the higher seed. The Cardinals are in the round of 16 for the 20th time, matching Kansas and trailing only North Carolina (25), Kentucky (24) and Duke (23).

Smith struggled shooting the ball for the second straight game, missing his first four attempts and going scoreless until his 3-pointer put the Cardinals up 25-14 in the final minute of the opening half. The Louisville star scored 18 points in the second-round win over Manhattan, however he was just 3 of 9 from the field and had six turnovers.

Saint Louis is one of only a handful of teams that start five seniors, and their experience and cohesion showed in weathering a slow start and methodically working its way back into the game after falling down by 11 points. The Billikens began the second half with a 13-2 run, holding Louisville without a field goal for nearly 7 minutes to take a 29-27 lead.

But Smith hit a floater in the lane, then made two free throws to restore order for the Cardinals, who forced 18 turnovers and limited Saint Louis to 39.6 percent shooting.

Louisville rebuilt their lead to 13 over the next 9 minutes, with Hancock making two long 3-pointers and Jones delivering a 3-pointer and acrobatic layup before Smith finished a 23-8 surge with a driving layup that put his team up 50-37.

Smith finished 3 of 10 from the field and had a team-high seven turnovers. The senior who's averaging more than 18 points led the Cardinals with seven assists.

Saint Louis got 22 points and a career-high 15 rebounds from Rob Loe to overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to beat North Carolina State in overtime on Thursday. Louisville survived a second-round scare, too, using a late spurt led by Smith, Hancock and Harrell to turn back a challenge from No. 13 seed Manhattan.

Loe had just 10 points and five rebounds Saturday. The Billikens, in the NCAA tournament for a school-record third straight year, lost to Michigan State and Oregon in the third round the past two seasons.

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