Louisville, which could play West Virginia again Thursday night in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, appeared on their way to victory in Morgantown last weekend when Chris Smith's two free throws put the Cardinals ahead by five with 17 seconds remaining.
But the Cardinals made two defensive lapses in the final 30 seconds that allowed West Virginia's Casey Mitchell not one, but two open three-point looks. He made them both. Preston Knowles' ill-advised foul in the final second sent Darryl Bryant to the line for the game-winning free throws.
"We've got to execute at the end of the game, which we didn't do the other day," Pitino said. "But I think that will be a learning experience for us as we move forward.
"We made some mental mistakes that are going to help us. We didn't concentrate in the last few minutes - the way we played the shooter, the way we switched out was contrary to what we wanted to do. It's going to pay dividends to help our concentration down the road."
Though Pitino acknowledged Knowles' mistake at the end, he placed more blame for Louisville's loss to West Virginia on Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric. Kuric and Siva didn't execute their defensive assignments properly at the end of the game, which allowed Mitchell to get off his game-tying three's.
"I texted Preston that night and told him I wouldn't trade him for five of the best players in the country," said Pitino. "First of all, you're not going to make that call normally 75 feet from the basket with no time on the clock. That being said, I was more upset at Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric than I was Preston Knowles. Preston should not have done that, but it was instinctive. But Peyton knew to switch out to a man, and Kyle knew to get out on the shooter. Those are the things you can control."
After the game, Pitino kept his team in the locker room for an extended period – pounding the point that his players must execute better in the post-season than they did down the stretch against the Mountaineers. Louisville's coach sounded pleased with the way his team has responded.
"The heart and attitude of this basketball team is as big as the city of Louisville," Pitino said. "I think they have great heart, great attitude. They are just as devastated as the coaching staff when we lose. No crying in the locker room – but we are devastated."
Pitino also was disappointed by Louisville's subpar effort on the backboard in Morgantown. West Virginia crushed the Cards on the boards, grabbing 25 offensive rebounds, one more than Louisville had as a team. Pitino said his guards have to do better weak-side rebounding.
"I was immensely disappointed in Peyton, Preston and Kyle in the last game because they didn't rebound," Pitino said. "We talked long and hard about how they have to rebound if we're going to win because our fives don't rebound. It was disappointing that they didn't get in there and mix it up enough. I think we realize that if we do that again we'll go home in both tournaments."
Louisville heads to New York Wednesday for their Thursday quarterfinal game. The Cardinals will face the winner of the Marquette - West Virginia game. If higher-seeded West Virginia advances to play Louisville, Pitino believes his team's setback in Morgantown could help them against Bob Huggins' Mountaineers in New York.
"You always look for a silver lining," said Pitino. "If West Virginia wins and plays us, what would be the possibility of us sweeping them in a season three games? So you never know. Maybe it works out for the better."
With 11 probable NCAA Tournament teams, including a pair of possible No. 1 seeds in Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, there won't be an easy path to the Big East Tournament title. Still, Pitino likes Louisville's chances this week.
"I think we've got as good a shot as anybody, but there's going to be 11 teams that make the NCAA so it's anybody's ball game," Pitino said. "The one thing about us is we play hard enough to play close, but we're not good enough to knock anybody out either."
In five previous trips to the Big East Tournament, Louisville is 4-4. The Cardinals were knocked out last season by Cincinnati in their first game.
"I think focus is really important," Pitino said. "There are going to be a lot of close games. Preparation is key because you have so little preparation time. Film watching is very important. Do you have people that can concentrate? Most of our guys are good in that area. That's why it was so surprising that our veterans didn't concentrate in the last game."
Big East ResultsUConn 97, DePaul 71
Rutgers 76, Seton Hall 70
South Florida 70, Villanova 69
Marquette 87, Providence 66
Second Round - Wednesday March 9Georgetown vs. UConn - Noon
St. John's vs. Rutgers - 2:00
Cincinnati vs. USF - 7:00
West Virginia vs. Marquette - 9:00