NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisville could have been blown out. Rick Pitino’s coaching chops and a little bit of hard work made it closer than it probably should have been.
Relying on grittiness, offensive rebounding and Pitino’s savvy, Louisville kept state-rival Kentucky within reach before fading in a 69-61 loss to the Wildcats in the Final Four on Saturday night.
“We knew we were going to play like starvin’ dogs,” Pitino said.
Pitino-led teams have always played the us-against-the-world card and this group needed that kind of attitude against Kentucky’s stable of future NBA players.
Led by Associated Press Player of the Year Anthony Davis, the Wildcats (37-2) had an advantage at nearly every position, so the only way for Louisville to keep up with the Bluegrass racehorses was to gunk up the works.
The Cardinals did just that, overcoming some early-game jitters with offensive rebounding and defensive adjustments by Pitino to twice rally from double-digit deficits. Louisville shot just 35 percent, but had a 19-6 advantage on the offensive glass to keep Kentucky from running away.
“They offensive rebounded against us better than any team we played this year,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They never stopped playing. They got up into our bodies, created turnovers and gave themselves a chance to win.'”
Even with all that hard work and one of college basketball’s best in-game coaches pulling the strings, Louisville couldn’t keep up with the speedy Wildcats for the entire 40 minutes. Top-seeded Kentucky (37-2) shot 57 percent to reach Monday night’s championship game against Kansas or Ohio State.
The fourth-seeded Cardinals managed to slow down Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who spent the game in foul trouble and finished with nine points. Davis, however, did pretty much whatever he wanted, getting 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
Peyton Siva had 11 points and Chane Behanan added 10. Gorgui Dieng had 12 rebounds and four blocked shots for Louisville.
“When everybody really counted us out, we really dug through and I’m proud of this team,” Siva said. “Everybody really stuck together. Nobody ever gave up. We could have easily gave up and lost by 30, but everybody decided to battle through.”
Pitino pulled off one of his best coaching jobs this season, taking a program with no true stars into the Final Four for the first time since 2005. The Cardinals were riddled with injuries and limped to the finish of the regular season, yet managed to turn it on at the right time.
With the 59-year-old Pitino calling the shots, Louisville reeled off four wins in four days at the Big East tournament and played seemingly a different style in each of its first four NCAA tournament games.
Even for a coach who led spunky Providence to the 1987 Final Four, this was impressive.
Pitino needed all his skills against Kentucky, the school he coached to the 1996 national championship.
Playing with six, maybe more, future NBA players, the Wildcats were the overwhelming favorite to not just beat Louisville, but to win the national title.
It didn’t help that the Cardinals seemed overwhelmed by the take-the-rivalry-to-a-new-level atmosphere of the Final Four.
Out of sorts at the start, Louisville fumbled away passes, put up shots that didn’t come close to hitting the rim, let Kentucky seemingly do whatever it wanted on offense.
Siva, Louisville’s catalyst all season, was shaky early, throwing passes off teammates’ legs and missing both his shots before sitting the final 7 minutes of the first half after picking up two fouls.
Dieng was off, too, playing timidly instead of with his usual aggressiveness. He missed a two-handed dunk on an open drive down the lane and seemed unprepared whenever the ball came to him.
The rest of the team wasn’t much better, struggling to stop Kentucky on defense or to get anything to fall from anywhere.
“Just jitters,” Siva said.
Yet, with all those struggles, the Cardinals kept finding a way to keep it close.
Down 10 in the first half, they chipped it to three late. Their deficit up to 13 early in the second half, they tied it 49-all on Siva’s 3-pointer with 9 minutes left.
Pitino was a big part of it, using on-the-fly adjustments and in-huddle encouragement to help the Cardinals keep up with what is generally considered the most talented team in college basketball.
When Dieng struggled early, his coach sat knee-to-knee with him in what appeared to be a keep-your-head-up moment in the first half. He took a similar tactic with Siva and both played better in the second half, making key plays to get the Cardinals back in it.
When Kentucky made a run in the second half, Pitino called for the Cardinals to extend their pressure, creating turnovers that allowed them to fight back. He also had them switching defenses on nearly every trip — man one possession, zone another — to keep the Wildcats off balance.
“It was a great game plan to throw us off, just mixing it up, playing man and zone,” Kentucky’s Terrence Jones said. “We didn’t know what they were doing because they kept switching it on us.”
Louisville just ran out of steam and scheme.
Kentucky stretched the lead in the closing minutes and Davis finished it off with an emphatic dunk, sending the Cardinals back to the Bluegrass state two wins short of their goal.
“When I compared them a few weeks ago to the ’87 Providence team, it was in terms of effort and attitude,” Pitino said of his Cardinals. “They made me really, really proud. They battled a great team tonight. We just needed a lot of things to go right down the stretch.”
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