‘We don’t have a reason to hang our head’

By on April 3, 2012

By Chelsea Allen–

Sunday morning, following the aftermath of one of the most anticipated games in NCAA history, an ESPN.com headline rang the truth, “Few thought Louisville would make it so far. There were no tears in the Cardinals’ locker room.”

Labeled the “Dream Game 2.0,” in reference to Louisville and Kentucky’s previous tournament match up in the 1983 Elite Eight, the road would finally end for one of the state’s two teams still dancing towards the finale of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, the road ended a game too soon.

An already nationally celebrated semi-finals game, intensified by the heated, relentless in-state rivalry and swarmed with media attention, had both teams playing with a lot on the line. Kentucky had to live up their expectations, the last standing and overall No. 1 seed in the tournament. A star-laden team of names likely to be called first in this year’s NBA draft, Kentucky would have no excuses for a loss. But the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals were busy proving themselves with a shocking winning streak, after an almost torturous season of injuries, bad losses, and only hopeful progressions. Thousands from both fan bases traveled hundreds of miles to represent and support their teams. Louisville entered the New Orleans Super Dome as an 8.5-point underdog, but beating the spread had been the name of the game during the Cards 8-0 postseason tournament run. Suddenly, Saturday’s line was right on. Louisville lost to Kentucky 69-61.

Never taking a lead after scoring the first basket of the game, the Card’s hard-fought attempted comebacks were not enough to conquer the mighty Wildcats. Peyton Siva led his team with 11 points and three assists, lacking any notorious steals. Against the large-bodied Cats, the Cardinals’ tactic of finding a hole to slip through and sneak a basket was near impossible. Making a shot against decorated Player of the Year and almost 7-foot Kentucky freshman, Anthony Davis, doesn’t come easy. “Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is,” complemented Coach Rick Pitino following the game. Kentucky’s giant is the key setback for almost any of the teams doomed to face Kentucky this season; he rarely has anything but a solid game. Davis led the Cat’s with 18 points, five blocks, and 14 rebounds. Gorgui Dieng, holding the record for the most blocked shots by any Louisville player in just his sophomore season, could not control the big man alone. “I didn’t want to get in foul trouble,” Dieng said.

Coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari direct their teams during the first matchup between the Cards and Cats from Dec. 31, 2011.

“We knew we were going to play like starving dogs on the glass,” said Pitino. Louisville outrebounded Kentucky 40-33. Dieng contributed 12, in addition to seven points, four blocks and two steals.

Down by as many as 10, the Cats closed out the first half with a seven point lead over the Cards, 35-28. Hopes were very high for the Cardinals to make a comeback; it was anything but uncommon for the Cards to trail at the half, but return to claim victory.

Those hopes began to dim, and the sea of blue silenced the Cardinal red as Kentucky went on to take a 13-point lead with 16 minutes left in the second half. A few seconds later, celebrated senior Kyle Kuric slammed a dunk, sparking an energetic Louisville run that eventually tied the game at 49. But, with just two close losses, the Cats don’t let up after they break a few bad turnovers or missed shots, either. The “Comeback Cards” found this out, only after it was too late to make a signature comeback. Keeping the game within a few points until the final five minutes, the Cards suddenly fell behind again, with little time on the clock to attempt another miraculous victory.

Fighting with the heart their coach has celebrated all season, Siva flew through a tangle of monster Cats, pounding an unexpected one-handed dunk, responded by a quick steal by Kuric. Two good free throws later, Russ Smith boosted the Cards back within five, 58-63 with under two minutes to play. The Cats would allow no more.

Breakout Cardinal Wayne Blackshear, who finished with nine points and four rebounds in just 14 minutes, nailed an impressive 3-pointer– only two Wildcat dunks too late. Star Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sealed the game with a slam-dunk, but the only sound echoing throughout the Dome were the chants of the Big Blue Nation. They were in the final game of the tournament, just one win away from gaining what could be the program’s eighth National Championship.

Few even noticed the “infrared” Cards quietly exiting the floor. The heart breaking, blood pressure raising, heart-warming and mind-blowing 2011-12 Louisville Basketball season had come to an end.

Media pondered the unusual length of time that passed behind Pitino’s closed locker room, usually a place welcome to interviews and questions following the game. But when the door finally opened, it was clear Louisville’s head coach had been sharing nothing but love, pride, and encouragement with “his boys.”

“I feel like they’re my children now,” Pitino said of his players this season. “They made me really, really proud.”

“They battled a great team tonight. We just needed lot of things to go right down the stretch.” The Cards were about three or four baskets short. Outrebounding a terrific rebounding team 40-33, the Cards also outscored the Cats in free throw shooting and 3-pointers. Still, the Cards only shot 34.8 percent from the field, in comparison to the Cats 57.1 percent. “Kentucky is a great basketball team. I’ll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky,” Pitino said of the Cats championship game against No. 2 Kansas. “Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky… which doesn’t happen very often.”

“We just played with a lot of effort, and all we had… we don’t have [a] reason to hang our head,” echoed Dieng.

Siva agreed. “I think it showed we have a lot of heart. I’m proud of this team. Nobody [ever] gave up.”

U of L’s basketball team quietly departed for New Orleans, Louisiana from the Louisville International Airport. Photo: Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal

As the team headed back home, incapable of a chance to earn the national title, a proud Pitino encourage his team to celebrate their accomplishments. “If you don’t celebrate all that effort, what good is the journey?” Pitino said. “We’re only going to get better,” he added, already looking forward to next season, hopefully a healthier one.

Chane Behanan, a rare freshman starter on a Pitino team, enjoyed his first ride as a Card. “Next year, I’m trying to come back to this,” Behanan said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life.”

While sentimental to say goodbye to his seniors, Chris Smith, Jared Swopshire, and Kyle Kuric, Pitino was positive and satisfied with another successful season at Louisville.

“Another banner goes up in the Louisville gym, and they’re always going to be remembered for that.”

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Photo: Michael Baldwin/The Louisville Cardinal

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