Down by eight at halftime after taking quick, contested shots and committing 11 turnovers that Villanova turned into 13 points, Louisville emerged out of the locker room for the final twenty minutes and delivered an impressive knockout punch of No. 10 Villanova, recording a convincing 69-55 win.
"He told us in the locker room we weren't playing Louisville basketball," Andre McGee said. "We were letting them take easy shots and break through our press. We pride ourselves on defense and we didn't get that done in the first half."
"We went in at halftime and I said ‘guys I can't yell at you because I'm speechless,'" Pitino said. "I said ‘you've been playing great basketball and I don't even know who you are.' I (didn't) recognize Terrence Williams or Earl Clark. (They) had a little pressure and went one-on-one and jacked up shots. We went through that mistake at Notre Dame. I didn't know what to say to them because that was not the Louisville team I've coached the last few games. So I told them ‘now we're going to go out and play Louisville basketball – we're going to pass, passing is going to lead to open shots, we're going to work inside to out and our press is going to be relentless and then we're going to get on to the championship game."
"As bad as we were in the first half that's how brilliant we were at all phases of the game in the second half," Pitino added.
The victory propels Louisville into its first Big East Tournament championship Saturday night against No. 6-seed Syracuse, who beat No. 7-seed West Virginia in overtime Friday night. The last time Louisville won a conference championship came in 2005 when the Cardinals won the Conference USA title on the way to the NCAA Final Four.
After a cold shooting first half, Louisville used a 17-2 run to begin the second half to gain the lead 43-36 less than five minutes out of the break. Louisville hit five three-pointers during that run, two by Jerry Smith and one each from Earl Clark, Preston Knowles and Andre McGee. For the game, the Cardinals made 13 of 28 three-pointers.
"We just were brilliant in the second half," Rick Pitino said. "In the second half we didn't turn it over hardly at all. We wore them out physically. We just were brilliant in the second half. We did a fabulous job passing the basketball – I think we had five assists at halftime and ended up with 18. We shot 51 percent in the second half and played 28 percent defensively…we made our free throw at key times."
three-pointers during Louisville's
second half comeback against Villanova.
Earl Clark led Louisville with 17 points and seven rebounds, while Jerry Smith added 16 points, connecting on 4 of 6 three-point shots. The Cardinals also received strong contributions off the bench from reserves Knowles and Terrence Jennings. Knowles connected on a pair of three-pointers to finish with eight points and Jennings added eight points and four blocks – more importantly Jennings harassed Villanova center Dante Cunningham in the second half.
"I thought Terrence Jennings just really bothered Dante Cunningham," Pitino said. "He's now as good as Samardo Samuels in a much different way. I thought Andre McGee was great and Jerry Smith has been our unsung hero that last 10 games. He's doing some really terrific things on the basketball court. He's making smart plays and I'm really proud of Jerry."
With the contest tied at 50 with 8:14 remaining, Louisville closed out the game on a 19-5 run to put Villanova away. McGee started the run with a three-pointer, while Jennings scored five points during the stretch on two field goals and a free throw. Earl Clark scored the game's final five points on a tip shot and a three-pointer in the final minute and a half of action.
While Louisville picked up the offense in the second half it was their defense – again – that led the way. The Cardinals hawked Scotty Reynolds the entire game, holding the Wildcats leading scorer to just two points on 1-6 shooting.
"We just kept dogging him with pressure," McGee said. "We know he's a great guard and we had to keep attacking him and getting fresh bodies on him."
Louisville limited Villanova to just 18 of 52 (34.6 percent) shooting for the game while using relentless fullcourt defensive pressure to force 23 Wildcat turnovers. The Cardinals also made 12 steals and blocked eight shots to hold Villanova more than 20 points under their season's average.
Andre McGee added nine points and four assists, while Terrence Williams grabbed 11 rebounds and made six assists for the Cardinals.
"Six assists and 11 rebounds – that's the T-Will we know not the one that was going one-on-one and impersonating Tracy McGrady," said Pitino.
Saturday's Big East championship game will start at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Louisville beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome by 10 earlier this season.