Louisville couldn't establish the up-and-down the court tempo it wanted. But the Cardinals' hard-nosed defense featuring seven blocked shots for center Gorgui Dieng, combined with a couple of mini-runs on offense in the second half, were enough to topple No. 1 seed Michigan State 57-44 in the NCAA West Regional Championship semifinal Thursday at US Airways Center.
The night belonged to coach Rick Pitino's team, led by Chane Benahan's 15 points -- all in the second half -- and Dieng, a sophomore from Senegal who swatted seven shots as Louisville won with a solid half-court zone defense and not it's much more heralded press. Fourth-seeded Louisville also won the rebounding battle, another surprise, with 39 to the Spartans' 36.
Tom Izzo figured his Spartans were facing a challenge when Dieng drained a 3-pointer to give Louisville a 20-15 lead with 4:09 left in the first half.
"They took it at us pretty good, and every time we cut the lead they brought it up," Izzo said. "A little worried the first half when (Jared) Swopshire, who's 3-for-20 for the year, hits two threes, and Dieng, I don't think he's taken one all year and he hits one."
Pitino said any of his players have the green light to shoot. The Cardinals made 21 of 55 field goals for the game, but nine of them were 3-pointers. Guard Chris Smith hit three of them.
"We had three goals coming into this. One was to stop the three, two was to try and outrebound them, which was a daunting task, and three, we wanted to protect Gorgui with our life. We felt that if we could keep Gorgui in the game we could beat them, and everybody had to guard the middle, contain the basketball and keep Gorgui from getting in foul trouble. He played a brilliant game. Chane played a brilliant game... without him we don't win this game. He was a man-child in the second half."
The Cardinals went ahead 35-25 with a 6-0 run early in the second half, and after the Spartans scored six unanswered points, Louisville ran off seven straight points during a run in which they forced two turnovers. Then Pitino's kids held off Michigan State over the last eight minutes of the game to advance to Saturday's regional final.
A jumper from Peyton Siva -- one of nine for Louisville on the night -- made it 46-33 with 5:51 left, and the Spartans could get no closer than seven down the stretch. Forward Chane Behanan came up big for the Cardinals with all 15 of his points in the second half, and Siva dished out eight assists.
Neither team shot the ball well overall, and Michigan State was downright horrendous. The Spartans made just 28.6 percent of their shots for the game and committed 15 turnovers, one more than the number of shots they made for the game.
Cue the collective cringe from frustrated Sparty fans.
"You know what our press does sometimes? It just wears people out," Pitino said. "We really didn't want to trap them. We wanted to run and jump to get to the legs... We just tried to get into our zone, wear them out and just neutralize the backboard."
Brandon Wood led MSU with 14 points and star senior Draymond Green added 13 with 16 rebounds, his third double-double of the tournament (he had a triple-double as part of that).
One would have been hard-pressed to imagine Louisville would be up 23-18 at halftime having made only 8 of 30 shots, seven of those being 3-pointers. But that the Cardinals would be winning the rebounding battle 22-16, with eight offensive boards to two for the Spartans was unthinkable.
Yet both of these were true at halftime. Michigan State's last lead of the game was 7-5 after a dunk by Green with 10:40 to go.
Louisville surged ahead 17-11 after Smith sank his second three with 6:45 left. Green's three from the top of the key a few passes after a fastbreak made it 20-18 Cardinals.
Siva dished out nine assists to offset a miserable offensive night, though Louisville shot 52 percent in the second half.
"Give Louisville an enormous amount of credit," the Spartans' Austin Thornton said. "They put pressure on us from start to finish. They really disrupted what we're used to doing."
Izzo conceded that the Spartans hadn't seen such athleticism from an opponent.
"That's one we never faced, so maybe it was a bad matchup for us, " he said.