In a contest that was expected to be close throughout – odds-makers listed Louisville as a slight favorite before the game – the Cardinals, despite 20 turnovers, proved to be the superior team against the SEC champion Vols.
to the East Region final with
12 points against UT. (AP Photo)
"You've got to fight every possession to beat (Tennessee) and we did," Rick Pitino said. "(Earl Clark) had a big game tonight."
After blowing out their first two NCAA Tournament opponents by an average of 24 points, Louisville harassed high-scoring Tennessee with a tenacious defensive effort, limiting the Volunteers to 33 percent shooting while holding them 23 points below their season's average.
Louisville forced 17 Tennessee turnovers, blocked seven shots and held Tennessee's leading scorer – Chris Lofton – to just 3 of 15 shooting.
Earl Clark, for the third straight game in the tourney, led Louisville with a game-high 17 points and 12 rebounds off the bench. The Vols had no answer for the long and athletic Clark, who also had 4 blocked shots, 2 assists and two steals. Clark hit 7-of-10 shots and 3-of-4 free throws.
Louisville again shot light out from the field, making 52 percent of their shots. That shooting performance marked the third consecutive game in the NCAA's that Louisville has shot better than 50 percent from the floor.
The Cardinals got balanced scoring against the Vols, with five players scoring in double figures. Starting guards Andre McGee and Jerry Smith both scored 13 points, while Terrence Williams added 12. David Padgett scored 10 points, while Derrick Caracter tossed in nine points and 5 rebounds in a reserve to role.
Louisville also pounded the Volunteers inside, out-rebounding UT 42-24 while holding the Vols starting forwards Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith below their seasons average. Smith finished with 11 points, while Chism had only nine.
I told our guys this game would be won on the backboard," said Pitino. "They had 19 offensive rebounds against Memphis and whichever team out-rebounded would win the game."
After Tennessee jumped out to a 5-2 lead two minutes into the game, Louisville blitzed the Vols with a 13-0 run midway through the first half to take a 24-8 lead and command of the game. Tennessee regrouped and cut Louisville's 16 point lead to 35-30 with :38 seconds left in the half. But Andre McGee scored on a driving layup just before the buzzer to give Louisville momentum, and a 37-30 lead heading into the break.
12 rebounds against Tennessee.
The Vols came out of the locker room for the second half determined to make it a contest, cutting Louisville's lead to just one at 37-36 three minutes into the final period.
But Louisville regrouped and quickly responded with a 12-3 run over the next three minutes to take a 49-39 with 13:24 left.
"I just kept reminding the guys every time we needed a bucket what we had to do – we had to use back-screens," Pitino said.
The Cardinals maintained an 8-12 point cushion over the next 9 minutes before pulling away in the final minutes. Louisville held Tennessee to only two field goals in the game's final five minutes.
"We just wanted to come out and be aggressive," Clark said. "In the first half they pushed us out of our offense a little bit and coach told us to make hard cuts and that's what we did and we got open looks."
After committing 14 first half turnovers, Louisville buckled down and took better care of the ball in the final 20 minutes, committing only six miscues after the break. The Cardinals also shot 66 percent in the second half while hitting 14-of-19 free throws in the second half.
"As far as offense, today we did a terrible job in the first half," McGee said. "We had a lot of turnovers but we stepped it up in the second half and made them throw the ball out of bounds a couple times."
Now, Louisville must quickly turnaround and prepare for Saturday's Elite Eight matchup against No. 1 seed North Carolina. The Tar Heels downed Washington State 68-47 Thursday night to advance to the regional final matchup.
"We are not content, we are not happy with just getting here," Rick Pitino said. "We are three games away from a potential championship."
Louisville will face North Carolina at 9 p.m. on Saturday night.