Cards, Illini could produce thriller in semifinals

Louisville (33-4) will face Illinois (36-1) Saturday afternoon in the national semifinals at the Edward Jones Dome in Saint Louis, Mo. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:07 PM, with the winner advancing to the NCAA Championship game Monday night.

Illinois and Louisville came through with thrilling comebacks just in time to save their national championship hopes.

Time will run out for one of them Saturday night.

A week after playing two of the most memorable games of this NCAA tournament, the Illini and Cardinals have the potential to play another classic when they meet in the first Final Four game.

The game matches a Louisville team seeking its third national championship against an Illinois team trying to match the NCAA record for victories in a season.

It also matches a pair of teams that looked like they would be watching the Final Four from home.

The Cardinals trailed West Virginia by 20 points late in the first half of the Albuquerque Regional final. The Illini's situation seemed even more desperate, as they trailed Arizona by 15 points with four minutes remaining in the Chicago Regional final.

Both teams rallied to win in overtime by relying on pressure defense and 3-point shooting, which are strengths of both.

Louisville is one of the few teams with the perimeter balance necessary to counter Illinois' trio of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head. In fact, the 45.7 points per game the Cardinals get from Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and Larry O'Bannon is nearly four points per game more than the Illini get from their trio, which placed all three members on the three AP All-America teams.

O'Bannon has been the hottest Louisville player of late. He scored all of his 24 points after halftime in Saturday's game and is averaging 17.8 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the NCAA tournament. Dean has made 17 3-pointers in the Cardinals' four tournament games.

``They're good. They play at a very aggressive pace. They take it to you,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. ``It's going to be a game where defense is very important.''

That means Louisville better return to the strong defensive play it had displayed for most of the season. The Cardinals limit teams to 38.6 percent shooting, but the Mountaineers shot 55.3 percent in last week's game.

After West Virginia shredded Louisville's zone on its way to 18 3-pointers, the Cardinals got back into the game by going to pressure defense. The Illini can exploit either defense the Cardinals use.

6-8 freshman power forward Juan Palacios
could play a key role when the Cardinals
take on Illinois this afternoon. (AP Photo)

The Illini shoot 40 percent from 3-point range, led by Brown's 45 percent and Head's 41. They make 8.6 3-pointers per game, which will make it tough for the Cardinals to rely on their zone. But the quickness, passing ability and decision-making skills of Illinois' perimeter trio makes it difficult to pressure the Illini.

Trying to figure out a way to defend the Illini is Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, who becomes the first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four. He made his first trip with Providence in 1987 and made multiple trips with Kentucky, winning the national championship in 1996. His experience could make a difference in a matchup between teams that haven't gone this far in the tournament since the 1980s.

``When the ball's thrown up, it's going to be who can play under this -- and the Final Four is so big right now -- who can play in this environment and perform,'' Pitino said. ``Because it's not just playing basketball, it's who can perform in front of 40,000 people, in front of so many millions viewing and just be able to focus in on that, block everything else out. And it comes down to execution and talent, and generally talent wins out.''

Louisville is in its eighth Final Four, but first since winning its second national title in 1986. The Cardinals have tied the school record for wins, set by their 1980 championship team.

Illinois is in its fifth Final Four and is still seeking its first championship game appearance. The Illini are back in the national semifinals for the first time since 1989 and can tie the NCAA record for wins in a season with a victory Saturday.

Duke (1986 and 1999) and UNLV (1987) won 37 games, but none of those teams captured the national championship.

The biggest weakness for the Illini is usually interior defense, and just last week they struggled to contain Arizona's Channing Frye and Hassan Adams. But Louisville's strength is its perimeter play and they probably won't be able to take advantage of the Illini inside the way the Wildcats did.

Illinois' guards, also excellent defensive players, need to make sure the Cardinals don't get good looks from behind the arc. Louisville has made 10 or more 3-pointers in seven of its last nine games, and is 20-0 this season when making that many.

The teams have split four previous meetings, with Illinois' victory in the 1989 regional semifinals coming in their only prior tournament matchup.

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