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Cardinals begin defense of title in joust with Jaspers

<p>The quest for a second straight national championship for the Louisville Cardinals begins Thursday night, as the fourth-seeded squad in the Midwest Region of the tournament bracket takes on the 13th-seeded Manhattan Jaspers at the Amway Center in Orlando.</p>

Orlando, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The quest for a second straight national championship for the Louisville Cardinals begins Thursday night, as the fourth-seeded squad in the Midwest Region of the tournament bracket takes on the 13th-seeded Manhattan Jaspers at the Amway Center in Orlando.

The winner of this contest will play either fifth-seeded Saint Louis or 12th- seeded NC State in the Saturday's third round.

Manhattan, which earned the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's automatic bid by winning the conference championship over favorite Iona, 71-68, makes its seventh trip to the Big Dance. The Jaspers enter this contest with the defending national champions having won their last five games.

Louisville has also won five in a row, and comes in as the first-ever champion of the American Athletic Conference, after beating UConn in the finals, 71-61. Louisville, which some thought deserved a higher seed than what the selection committee actually gave, has won 12 of the last 13 contests.

The Cardinals and Jaspers have met eight times in their program histories, with Louisville holding the all-time series lead, 6-2. Manhattan opened its 2012 season at second-ranked Louisville and was dropped, 79-51.

One year after Iona downed Manhattan in the MAAC Tournament championship game to earn the league's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, the Jaspers got their revenge. Manhattan held on to beat the Gaels by three points to earn the team's first tournament appearance since 2004. George Beamon led the way for the Jaspers in the MAAC championship with 16 points, adding eight rebounds to his stat line. Rhamel Brown scored 15 points in the contest, Shane Richards chipped in 14 and Emmy Andujar scored12 with five boards. Ashton Pankey pulled down a team-high nine rebounds, and Tyler Wilson dished out five assists.

Beamon was a force for the Jaspers this season, netting 19.2 ppg through 29 games played, registering a team-high 45 steals and grabbing a Manhattan-best 6.6 rebounds per outing. Beamon was the star of the show, but was complemented nicely by Michael Alvarado, who averaged 12 ppg and distributed a team-best 124 assists. Brown was also in the mix, with 10.1 ppg and an impressive 117 blocked shots. The Jaspers scored an average of 77.4 ppg in 32 contests this year, and gave up 70 ppg to opponents.

For Louisville, it doesn't matter where the team competes. The Cardinals have won three straight league titles, having won the last two in the Big East and now the inaugural AAC championship over UConn. A strong first half for Louisville, which outscored the Huskies 37-23 by the intermission, helped the Cardinals cruise to victory. Montrezl Harrell tallied a double-double and led the defending national champs in scoring with 22 points, adding 11 rebounds and three blocked shots to his stat line. Russ Smith scored 19 points and recorded five steals, and Chris Jones chipped in 11 points of his own in the win.

Smith, now a senior with a lengthy collegiate resume, topped the Cardinals in scoring average on the season. Smith brings an 18.3 ppg mark into the second- round clash, with a team-best 159 assists and 71 steals on the year. Harrell, who contributed to the 2013 national championship run, was the go-to presence underneath the basket, netting 14.2 ppg and boasting a team-leading 8.2 rpg margin. Luke Hancock (11.7 ppg) and Jones (10.3 ppg) round out the double- digit scorers for Louisville, which averages 82.1 ppg as a team and gives up just 61 ppg to opponents.

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