The Louisville Cardinals, in near miraculous fashion, punched their ticket to the Final Four as NCAA West Region champions with a 72-68 comeback win over the Florida Gators Saturday at US Airways Center.
The Cardinals finished the game on a 23-8 run over the last 10 minutes of the second half, four of those minutes without point guard Peyton Siva. Russ Smith, who replaced Siva in crunch time, scored 10 of his 19 points in the last 10 minutes of the game, and Chane Behanan added 13 of his 17 points in the second half.
"I kept looking at the clock, telling myself we've been in this type of situation," Behanan said.
"I was actually pretty nervous because this is one of the first times that I really handled the 'one' (point) in like a situation that was so serious," Smith said. "I had to find a way to calm myself down and get the job done."
Pitino said he took a page from "Lin-sanity" to call Smith "Russ-diculous." Siva said he trusts Smith "with all his heart," as he recalled watching the drama unfold from the bench.
Louisville is off to its 10th Final Four and first since 2005. Only five coaches have guided more Final Four teams than the Cards' Rick Pitino, who stands at six. That ties him with two other legendary coaches from Kentucky, former Louisville coach Denny Crum and Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp.
Pitino beat his protege, known to him as "Billy The Kid," Florida coach Billy Donovan. Pitino coached Donovan at Providence College when they went to the Final Four in 1987.
"For 32 minutes, they outplayed us," Pitino said of the seventh-seeded Gators. "As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching."
Donovan said if he had to lose, "it would be to him (Pitino), to have him towards the end of his career to enjoy this experience."
Florida shot 67 percent from the field and sank eight of their 3-pointers in the first half, but the Cardinals overcame some questionable officiating and held the Gators without a three in the second half. The Cardinals were whistled for six more fouls than the Gators and were forced to go with starters Siva, Kyle Kuric and Behanan playing with four fouls for much of the second half.
"We just didn't make shots and didn't defend them," the Gators' Erving Walker said. "They were able to get down the lane and make big plays.
Siva, the heart of the Cardinals, was lost for the game with his fifth foul with 4:10 left in the game and Louisville down 65-64. The Cardinals battled back from an 11-point deficit to tie it at 66 with 3:08 to go.
"We just knew nobody really believed in us," Siva said. "It was us against the world."
A technical foul on Pitino with 10:56 left sparked the Cardinals. Five Gators finished in double figures, led by the 14 points from Erik Murphy and Bradley Beal. Beal, an NBA lottery pick prospect, committed a costly turnover with 18 seconds left when he was called for traveling after stealing the ball.
Louisville scored 15 points off turnovers, while Florida had zero. The Cardinals' bench also outscored Florida's 22-5. Next stop, New Orleans.
"Now they're going to get this experience," Pitino said. "And the only thing I've asked to do is not be satisfied by going."