Cards improbable run continues to New Orleans

After Louisville's 58-49 loss at Syracuse earlier this month - a game that wasn't as close as the final score - a lot of folks, Cardinal fans included, were ready to write off the season, expecting another early March exit. Now, Rick Pitino's Cards are headed to the Final Four.

After Louisville's 58-49 loss at Syracuse earlier this month - a game that wasn't as close as the final score - a lot of folks, Cardinal fans included, were ready to write off the season, expecting another early March exit.

That line of thinking seemed rational at the time.

After all, UofL's loss on March 3 at the Carrier Dome was the Cardinals fourth setback in the final six games of the regular season. During that stretch, Louisville struggled offensively, failing to score more than 57 points in five of those contests.

Now, after overcoming Florida 72-68 in the West Region finals Saturday in Phoenix, Louisville is heading to New Orleans to face Kentucky or Baylor in the Final Four.

Let me repeat that. Louisville, the same team that finished seventh in the Big East standings after failing to beat a league team with a winning conference record, has a ticket to the national semifinals.

Louisville's improbable late-season run continues onto New Orleans for a possible epic showdown against rival Kentucky in the Final Four.
Un-be-Louisville, as one Louisville fan so eloquently stated on the message board shortly after the Cardinals dispatched Billy Donovan's Gators.

"I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys," Rick Pitino said. "They give me every single thing they have in their bodies. And they're just the most incredible group to coach. And now they're going to get this experience. And the only thing I've asked them to is not to be satisfied by going."

Louisville's comeback victory over the lower-seeded Gators was their eighth straight win since taking one on the chin against Syracuse. The Cardinals strong post-season started by winning four games in four days to claim the Big East championship, a stretch that included wins over Sweet 16 teams Marquette and Cincinnati.

The Cardinals hot streak continued in the NCAA West Regional as the No. 4 seed. Ironically, it should be noted, the last time UofL advanced to the Final Four in 2005 they did so from the same seed and region that they did this time. Louisville dispatched Davidson in the second round, then advanced to the Sweet 16 with a hard fought win over Mountain West champion New Mexico.

Louisville's victory over the Lobos set the stage for a showdown in Phoenix with top-seed Michigan State. The experts didn't give the Cardinals much of a chance against Tom Izzo's Spartans, but Rick Pitino's underdogs smothered the Big 10 champs, beating MSU 57-44 to advance to the Elite 8. Michigan State's 44 points were the lowest by a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since the inception of the shot-clock in 1986.

"The beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder when you look at our basketball team. But you can see the potential," Pitino said. "You can see how good Chane Behanan is going to be. You can see Gorgui Dieng is going to be one of the premier centers in the game. You can see Russ Smith is tough to guard. You can see Wayne Blackshear, a McDonald's All-American, some day is going to be terrific. So we have -- we're just young and we're growing. And Kyle and Chris have been steady."

For a while Saturday, it appeared Louisville's improbable post-season run would end in the Arizona desert. But Russ Smith and Chane Behanan thought otherwise. Though Florida led UofL 60-49 midway through the second half, Smith and Behanan refused to allow the Cards season to end in the West Region. Those two fueled Louisville's 23-8 game-winning run, scoring 23 of the Cardinals final 25 points, as the Cardinals turned up the defensive pressure after Florida made eight first half three's. UofL held the Gators to zero second half three-pointers and 3-15 shooting in the final ten minutes.

"They're one of the best shooting teams I've faced in a long, long time. They're just awesome at it," said Pitino. "We switched to man. And Billy made another great move. When we switched to man, he kept putting Gorgui defending the pick-and-roll at the end. We tried switching it, blitzing it and nothing worked. Finally we had Chane, every time he ran up, Chane would leave his man and Gorgui would go to Chane's man, and it finally worked and we got our run at that time."

Where would Louisville be without Smith, the unheralded sophomore who often frustrates his veteran coach? Without Smith, who undoubtedly etched his place in Louisville lore during the final minutes against Florida, UofL wouldn't wouldn't be dancing on Bourbon Street next weekend.

With his team on the ropes, the unflappable guard from New York stepped up big for the Cardinals, especially after Peyton Siva fouled out with four minutes remaining. Not only did Smith provide the offense, he also grabbed four key rebounds down the stretch and hit two needed free throws in the waning seconds that propelled the Cardinals onto New Orleans.

"Man, I was actually pretty nervous because this is one of the first times that I really handled the one in a situation that was so serious," Smith said. "And it could have potentially cost us the season. I was very nervous. I had to find a way to calm myself down and get the job done, try and get Chane the ball, because Chane was going to get some great looks and just run the offense. That was the only thing that was going through my mind."

Behanan, the Most Valuable Player of the West Region, was sensational again for the Cardinals. Pitino's talented freshman finished with 17 points, scoring the go-ahead basket with 1:12 remaining. Behanan, who went toe to toe with Big 10 Player of the Year Draymond Green in the Sweet 16, also added seven rebounds and blocked two shots - all while playing the final 13 minutes with four fouls. Against the Spartans and Gators, Behanan combined for 32 points and 16 rebounds.

"[He] really played terrific down the stretch when we needed him," Pitino said.

Let's not forget about the two biggest reasons for Louisville's late season turnaround - Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. Saturday wasn't their brightest moments during the Cardinals current surge, but the 6'11 Dieng finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds against the Gators, while Siva added nine points and eight assists with just one miscue before fouling out. Dieng, who combined for 13 points, 15 rebounds and 8 blocks in Phoenix, and Siva, who posted 17 assists against MSU and UF in the regional, were also honored on the All-West Region team.

And a word about Rick Pitino, who has endured through a rough few years. Louisville's aging coach still ranks among the game's top masters after out-foxing Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan in Phoenix. In taking a team that was considered dead-to-rights three weeks ago to the Final Four, Pitino has proven beyond reasonable doubt that he deserves a place in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

"Chane got better. Gorgui got better. Peyton changed his whole game in the postseason. And everybody improved," Pitino said. "And that's all we were after, whether it was a believable thing that we could get here right now.

"And the reason I'm so proud is because it's tough to explain in this day and age the character of our ball club. Two years in a row we're the highest grade point average in the Big East. They're not great students. They just fight incredibly hard."

Now, the first coach that took three different programs to the Final Four will try to lead his second different program to the NCAA title next week in New Orleans. Next up for the Cardinals could be an epic showdown against rival Kentucky, who Pitino led the national championship 16 years ago.

The commonwealth holds its collective breath……

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