By Chelsea Allen–
The Louisville Cardinals are 2012 NCAA Tournament west region champions.
Also known as the 2012 Big East Tournament Champions, named just two weekends ago, this team from The Ville has truly overcome great adversity, by never looking back. In just a season, Coach Rick Pitino’s team has fought like warriors to earn a trip back to the Final Four, the first time since 2005.
“Outside of the births of my six children, this is the happiest day of my life,” Pitino said Saturday after the Cards defeated Billy Donavon’s No. 7 seed Florida in a 72-68 come-from-behind victory.
After defeating Davidson and New Mexico State last weekend in the first two rounds of the tournament, the Cards faced No. 1 seed Michigan State. Pitino held a 9-0 record, winning the Sweet 16 in all of his NCAA Tournament appearances, but MSU was one of the strongest teams in the country this season. Michigan State is also remembered for wiping out the No. 1 seed Cardinals in the Elite Eight just three years ago, in 2009.
This time, the Cards avevenged that loss, gaining a 57-44 triumph over the Spartans in Phoenix, Ariz., Pitino’s average winning margin in his undefeated Sweet 16’s was 21.1 points.
The game was everything but the usual, with just one field goal making up the first half’s 23-18 lead, the rest hit from beyond the arc. Even more unusual were the scorers: Gorgui Dieng hit his first career 3-pointer, shocking fans, and disturbing Michigan State’s play in just about every way.
“I was just wide open when I take that shot,” said Gorgui Dieng, with a smile after the game. “I took it, and it went in.”
Dieng finished the game with 5 points, 9 rebounds, 7 blocks and 3 steals.
“He was very disruptive,” Michigan State’s Draymond Green said, of Dieng.
Behanan led scoring with 15 points, all in the second half, along with a valuable 9 rebounds and 3 steals. Siva dished out 9 assists along with his 4 points, setting up his teammates with key plays to make the victory possible.
“It couldn’t be a very nice game. We knew we were going to come to a war,” said Dieng. “We try our best, we listened to what Coach wanted us to do, and… we win this game.”
Pitino was thrilled with the win. “These guys are complete warriors,” he said.
In less than 48 hours, the Cards would take on the No. 7 seed University of Florida Gators.
Once again, the match-up had history: Pitino coached Florida head coach, Billy Donavan at Providence, a member of Pitino’s first Final Four team celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.
Over the past week, Pitino continually reffered to Donavon as being “like a son to me.” Richard Pitino, Rick Pitino’s son, returned from Donovan’s coaching staff at Florida for his first season as assistant coach at Louisville, just this year. The West Regional title would be bittersweet for either coach.
“If we lose to Florida, I’ll be professionally very down about not going to a Final Four, but personally I’ll be very happy for Billy Donovan,” Pitino said before the game. But the fans, and players were out for only one thing: a win.
“We want to get him back to the Final Four so he can get inducted to the Hall of Fame while we are there,” said Chris Smith.
Dieng’s developed a mindset during the Big East Tournament that he seems to be living up to, one game at a time, “Just win it. Win it all.”
After starting off down 7-0 to the Gators Saturday afternoon, the Cards whizzed by on a 10-0 run, offering hope after an opening act of countless failed attempts. With two fouls on Behanan, Deing and Siva before the half, the Cards trailed 43-31 at halftime. An immediate three to answer the start of the second half by Florida’s celebrated Bradley Beal forced a dark cloud over Louisville’s chances of winning. The Card’s shots simply weren’t going in, while Florida seemed to bank three, after three, after three.
Louisville’s foul trouble followed them right into the second half. This was not a game that could afford to let foul-laden Siva to rest; Siva was required on the court to handle and distribute the ball around Florida’s demanding defense. Siva’s third and forth fouls, which came within just seconds of each other, forced Pitino into a frantic frenzy.
It was reported that Pitino was yelling at Siva about his foul, when official Karl Hess gave Pitino a technical. Pitino approached Hess about the confusion, but was told to step back into the coach’s box.
Star Gator Erving Walker made all four free throws to put Florida up 58-47. Just when it seemed Louisville would never catch a break, Russ Smith immediately responded with a jumper. A minute later, he clenched a lay-up.
This glimmer of hope went on to spark a shocking 23-8 run for Louisville. Louisville’s constant and leader, Siva fouled out with 3:58 to play, with eight points and a whopping nine assists. The Cards were down just one, 65-64, and had not led the game since 12:43 into the first half, when up by one.
The next few minutes were nothing short of a whirlwind of gripping emotion. Russ Smith was on his own to man the point, something he had yet been put in the burdening position to do.
“I was actually pretty nervous because this is one of the first times I really handled the one in a situation that was so serious,” recalled Russ Smith. “I was very nervous and I had to find a way to calm myself down. I had to get Chane the ball.”
He did just that. Behanan made a jumper to tie the game 66-66. A series of game clenching free-throws and a Behanan-jumper later, the Cards swarmed the court in victory, raising a trophy and cutting the net, yet again. Coming back from a hopeless chain of fouls, questionable calls and clanked shots, Louisvile claimed the Midwest Regional title. Freshman Behanan was MVP.
“I was MVP?” Chane questioned, after mention of his recognition following the game. “I swear I [didn’t] know that.”
When asked about the adversity he overcame, staying in the game to score 17 with four fouls, he just shook his head.
“Four fouls, I [don’t] let it bother me…[I say], calm down, I got it—trust me. On defense, I don’t think about the fouls. I play hard.” Previously referred to by Pitino as a “man-child”, it is safe to say freshman Behanan is no rookie in giving his all.
Though the win cannot be accredited to any one person, Russ Smith’s last minute heroics, along with the game-high 19 points truly locked in the “W.” With one of the most jovial spirits among a team of amazingly humble attitudes, Smith continued to joke around after the game. Coach Donovan called Smith’s style of play “crazy,” and Smith had no problem with that.
“If Coach Donavan called me crazy… then I guess I’m crazy!” Smith laughed.
It soon came out that the unlikely leader, quiet Kyle Kuric, was the team’s source of calm in midst of the storm.
“After the T [on Pitino] Kyle grabbed everyone together and said. ‘Listen, we’re going through adversity…. Let’s just get some stops…We’ve been here before.’” revealed Behanan. “And ever since that– we took off… and got the win,”
Dieng and Siva were also named to the Midwest Regional All Tournament Team.
There were no hard feelings between the two head coaches and friends.
“I said, ‘Billy, I feel bad. I feel terrible, man,’ “ Pitino said after the game. “He said, ‘Are you kidding me, coach? I am so happy for you.’ That just doesn’t happen in this world.”
Something else that just doesn’t happen in this world? Louisville and the University of Kentucky, arguably one of the greatest rivalries in all of college basketball, gearing up to go head to head as two of the final four teams left the big dance.
Louisville will play South Regional Champion and No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Final Four in New Orleans this coming Saturday.
“The state would be crazy. It would be the most hyped up game- ever,” said Chris Smith after Saturday’s game, still awaiting Kentucky’s vicorty of Baylor. “I want to play Kentucky more than anything. I know we can beat them.”
But for Pitino, just returning to the Final Four is enough.
“I kept telling the guys, ‘We’re going to the Final Four. Win the BIG EAST tournament, you’re going to the Final Four,’ and they did.”
“I’ve never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys.”
This is Pitino’s sixth career Final Four appearance.
Photo: Eric Voet/The Louisville Cardinal