MVP Luke leads Cards to C-USA title
Luke Whitehead once again dominated the boards and was named the MVP of the C-USA Tournament for his efforts. Whitehead's 37 tournament rebounds set a new C-USA tourney record and just as he had the day before against Memphis, Whitehead pulled down a key rebound with 4.7 seconds left in the game and drained two free throws at the other end to ensure the Cards their first C-USA Championship.
Whitehead finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds, for his third consecutive double-double in the C-USA Tournament.
``If I would've had however many rebounds and we would've lost the game, I would not have been the MVP,'' Whitehead said. ``It's not about the personal awards. It's all about winning.''
The Cards got big performances from its freshman in the title clash. Taquan Dean scored 15 points and 6 rebounds and Francisco Garcia added 14 points, 6 rebounds and blocked 3 shots.
``I'm really impressed with our basketball team,'' Head Coach Rick Pitino said after the game. ``When I had the first day of practice two years ago, I never could have dreamed of this day.''
The Cards prevailed despite getting just 8 points from senior leader Reece Gaines, who struggles the entire tournament offensively. His eight points against the Blazers were the first time he didn't reach double figure scoring all season. Gaines made just 1-8 shots from the field and committed 4 turnovers.
"I've been through a lot,'' he said. ``It feels great to finally be part of a great team.''
The Cards trailed the Blazers 37-35 at half time but turned up the defense early in the second half to build a 12 point lead midway through the final period.
The Blazers wouldn't fold though, fighting back to narrow Louisville's lead to one with under a minute to play in the game before Whitehead's rebound and final two free throws at 4.7 seconds to provide the games final score, 83-78.
``I've been coaching a long time and I am as impressed with this basketball team, Alabama-Birmingham, as I have been with any team we have faced,'' Pitino said. ``Four games in four days, that's as gutsy as it gets.''
Morris Finley led UAB with 20 points and freshman Demario Eddins scored 18 points and pulled down 12 boards for the Blazers. Blazer point guard Eric Bush also scored 14 points, and grabbed 7 rebounds.
The win also improved Pitino's conference tournament record to 21-2 since 1992. His only losses coming in the 1996 SEC Championship game against Mississippi State and last season to Marquette in the C-USA quarterfinals.
The Cards can now sit back and await the NCAA selection committee's announcement of where and who the Cards will face to open next week's tournament. Pitino predicted after the championship game the Cards could receive as high as a number two seed.
"We're the type of team that can go out in the first round if we don't rebound the ball," Pitino said. "Or we could go very far. But we're just happy to be there."
- By virtue of winning the C-USA Tournament the Cards received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Cards appearance in the 2003 NCAA Tournament will be its first trip to the dance since the 1999-00 season.
- The Cards win over the Blazers gave them their first C-USA Tournament title since joining the league in 1995-96. The win gave the Cards their first conference tournament title since winning the last Metro Conference Tournament in 1995.
- Luke Whitehead and Francisco Garcia were named to the All Tournament team.
- New tournament attendance record was set at the 2003 event. The 17,202 in attendance for today's championship also established the new single game championship record.
Seven games in the tournament were decided by six points or less and six were won by the lower-seeded team.
Marque Perry, G, Saint Louis
Eric Bush, G, UAB
Morris Finley, G, UAB
Francisco Garcia, F, Louisville
Luke Whitehead, F, Louisville
Tournament MVP: Luke Whitehead, Louisville