When top-ranked Louisville appeared like it was going to deliver an early second half knock punch against upstart Siena, the Saints called time out, re-grouped and came back out onto the court swinging despite facing a double-digit deficit.
After the Saints went on a 12-0 run to take a four-point second half lead with little more than seven minutes left in the contest, Louisville had two ways to go – to Indianapolis for a Regional Semifinal matchup against Arizona later this week or home.
In the final, decisive minutes, Louisville, particularly senior forward Terrence Williams, refused to lose.
The Cardinals, who responded with a 9-0 run to re-take control of their second round NCAA Tournament game against Siena, weren't ready to call it a season. In a bracket ripe with first round upsets, Louisville absolutely refused to become the Midwest's latest victim.
"The reason I kept calling those timeouts is because I didn't like the way our guys were putting their heads down when they took the lead," Rick Pitino said. "My timeouts were all motivational. I said ‘You're No. 1 for a reason and you've got to show your mettle down four and there's two ways you can go. You can be a fraudulent No. 1 or you can stand up and say we are the best team from the Big East and show it.'"
In the end, Louisville showed they deserved their No. 1 ranking and top-overall NCAA Tournament seed thanks primarily to Williams and freshman center Samardo Samuels. Those two proved too much for a gritty Siena squad that wouldn't wilt in the face of Louisville's relentless defensive pressure or size and depth advantages.
"T-Will was amazing," said Pitino. "One time I yelled for him to go to the glass and immediately he went to the glass, grabbed the rebound and put it in. He made big plays down the stretch."
Down 63-59 with 7:20 remaining in the game, Williams and Samuels willed Louisville to a hard fought tournament victory. At 5:07 left, Williams nailed a three-pointer to cut Siena's lead to one at 64-63. A minute later, Samuels hit a short jumper to put Louisville up 64-63. Williams followed with a layup to give the Cardinals a 66-63 lead with 3:26 left.
"In the beginning of the year we would have lost that game," Williams said. "We just dug in for the last seven minutes and it worked out in our favor."
When Louisville needed him the most, Williams responded with one of his best performances, tossing in 24 points and 15 rebounds, both game-highs. Though he made three turnovers while playing 38 minutes, Williams also had four assists, two steals and made 4 of 6 three-pointers.
Samuels also had a big game for the Cardinals, finishing with 13 points, 8 rebounds and five blocked shots. He made 6 of 12 shots from the floor, though he did struggle from the free throw line (1-of-5).
In four post-season games this season, the Cards had won by margins of 18, 14, 10 and 20. Two of those games came against teams – Villanova and Syracuse – that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 this weekend. Sunday, Louisville had to prove it could win a closely contested in the final minutes.
Louisville passed their biggest test of the season.
Hanging on to a slim 66-65 lead with 2:31 remaining, Louisville made some timely free throws and got two huge baskets from Earl Clark to put away the Saints. Louisville hit 5 of 8 free throws in the final two minutes while Samuels slammed Siena with a late dunk right before the final buzzer.
Clark pitched in a double-double with 12 points and 12 boards. Louisville's junior forward committed a team-high five turnovers but did contribute four assists and two blocked shots.
Though Louisville's full court pressure helped them win the Big East regular-season and tournament championships – and the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed, the Cardinals simply couldn't turnover Siena, who made just nine turnovers in the game. Credit must go to Siena point guard Ronald Moore for committing only two turnovers despite playing all 40 minutes against Louisville's pressure.
"That young man is the best point guard we've faced this year," Pitino said Moore.
Now, Louisville advances to play an Arizona team that many felt didn't belong in the tournament field after finishing with a .500 Pac-10 record. But Arizona knocked off Utah Friday in the first round then downed Cleveland State 71-57 Sunday to advance to Friday's Midwest Regional Semifinals.
In reaching their second consecutive regional semifinal game, the Cardinals become the fifth Big East team to crash the Sweet 16 – joining UConn, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Villanova. No conference in NCAA Tournament history has sent more teams to the round of 16.
Though Louisville is playing tough heading into their Sweet 16 game against the Wildcats, there appear two big issues Louisville must fix – or find ways to minimize - before facing Arizona: Free throw shooting and turnovers. The Cardinals have struggled with both of those areas in recent weeks and made just 6 of 13 free throws against Siena while committing 17 turnovers.
"I still had some doubts about our team even though we were Big East champions and No. 1," Pitino said. "I thought we were very good. But it took those three minutes down four to prove to me that we could do it. We had to strap it on and make big plays down the stretch and they did."