Final Four at stake for Cards vs. Mountaineers

Louisville (32-4), coming off an impressive win over top-seed Washington Thursday night in Albuquerque, N.M., will face West Virginia (24-10) Saturday in the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight for the right to advance to next week's Final Four in Saint Louis.

Just a No. 8 seed for the Big East tournament, West Virginia is now one of only eight teams left with a shot at the national championship.

A No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament, Louisville can further prove the selection committee wrong by becoming one of only four teams remaining.

Rick Pitino looks to return to the Final Four as the Cardinals try to spoil the Mountaineers' surprising run through the Albuquerque Regional in a matchup that should include plenty of long-range shooting.

``Coach (Pitino) tells us that the name on the front of the jersey doesn't really matter,'' Louisville's Larry O'Bannon said. ``You got to go out there and play the game of basketball whether you are a one seed or an eight seed. I mean each game you just go out there and play.''

Pitino, who made the last of his four Final Four trips in 1997 with Kentucky, has the Cardinals a win away from the national semifinals for the first time since coach Denny Crum and Pervis Ellison led them to the 1986 national championship.

That squad finished with 32 wins, the number this Louisville team reached with a 93-79 victory over top-seeded Washington on Thursday. The Cardinals were comfortably ahead through most of the second half, further showing they easily could have been the ones seeded No. 1, or at least No. 2 as many predicted they would be entering selection Sunday.

``They have great players. It seems like everybody is a fullback or a power forward,'' West Virginia's Mike Gansey said.

Louisville will match the winningest season in school history with a win Saturday. The 1979-80 team went 33-3 and won the national championship.

While the Cardinals have dominated the last two games -- they routed No. 5 seed Georgia Tech in the second round -- West Virginia has pulled out a close victory in every round.

Taquan Dean will play against
West Virginia despite suffering a
slight ankle sprain Thursday
against Washington.

The Mountaineers beat Creighton on a last-second dunk, defeated No. 2 seed Wake Forest in a double-overtime thriller and knocked off Bobby Knight's Texas Tech team 65-60 on Thursday in the regional semifinals.

``Thrilled. It's the best word I can use to describe it for our state, our university and especially our players,'' coach John Beilein said.

This is the furthest West Virginia has advanced since 1959, when Jerry West led the team to the national title game.

``We're not one of those powerhouses -- Duke or North Carolina -- yet,'' said guard Patrick Beilein, the coach's son. ``We like being under the radar. We just got hot at the right time.''

The team that is hotter from 3-point range in Saturday's contest could emerge victorious. Shooting from beyond the arc is a huge key for both squads, as they have combined to attempt 132 3-pointers in three tournament games.

During the regular season, Louisville ranked third nationally with 9.5 3-pointers made per game and West Virginia was 11th with 8.8. The Cardinals tied the program's NCAA tournament record with 11 3-pointers against Washington.

While the Cardinals rely on Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and O'Bannon for scoring from beyond the arc, all of the Mountaineers' starters can hit from 3-point range and one of their best shooters -- Beilein -- comes off the bench.

Dean, one of Louisville's top long-range threats who is averaging 15 points and shooting 10-for-22 from 3-point range in the tournament, sprained his ankle late in Thursday's game. The injury might limit him, but it won't keep him from playing.

``He's a little sore, but he'll be ready to go,'' Pitino said Friday.

If Dean isn't as effective as usual, even more of the burden could be left to Garcia, who has been one of the hottest players in the tournament. Through Thursday's games, he was the tournament's second-leading scorer with 71 points and has made 10-of-23 from beyond the arc.

West Virginia had a health issue of its own Thursday, with Gansey unavailable for much of the second half due to stomach cramps. He should be fine for Saturday, and enters with a 17.7 points-per-game average in the tournament.

He's part of a small frontcourt for the Mountaineers. Center Kevin Pittsnogle is 6-foot-11, but often plays on the perimeter and is a solid 3-point shooter, having made seven of 14 through three rounds while averaging 15.7 points.

The lack of an interior presence for West Virginia could benefit a Louisville team which consistently drove inside against Washington, often kicking out for 3-point attempts. The Cardinals may try to get the ball a lot more to Ellis Myles and Juan Palacios, bulky forwards who are usually afterthoughts in Louisville's perimeter-oriented offense.

The Cardinals, winners of 12 straight since falling to Memphis on Feb. 9, have won two of three meetings with the Mountaineers, the last coming in 1980.

Saturday's winner goes to St. Louis to meet Illinois or Arizona for a spot in the national title game.

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