NCAA BK

Louisville, Pitino celebrate unlikely Final Four

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NEW ORLEANS (AP)

Louisville coach Rick Pitino says he'll celebrate this season. He expects his unlikely Final Four squad to do the same.

The Cardinals didn't get to cut down the nets in New Orleans, but the run was surely satisfying to Pitino, who compared his group to one of his favorites, his first Final Four team in Providence in 1987.

''They made me really, really proud,'' Pitino said.

It might have been one of his finest coaching jobs of his career that includes a national championship at Kentucky in 1996. Louisville overcame three season-ending knee injuries, a rash of concussions and eight players who missed at least one game in an up-and-down year.

The Cardinals (30-10) surged at the end - winning four times in four days to capture the Big East tournament title and then winning four more to get to the Big Easy before falling 69-61 to Kentucky on Saturday night.

''Anytime you don't win a national championship and you're playing for one, it's disappointing. When you go home with a bronze medal around your neck, it's not disappointing,'' Pitino said. ''I told the guys ... `I'm celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around injuries and everything else.

''If you guys don't celebrate and have good, clean fun, you're fools.' Because I think there's only been eight (other Louisville) teams that got to the Final Four in the history of the one of the greatest traditions and they did it.''

Even with the loss to Kentucky on the biggest stage ever for the in-state rivalry game, the success should quiet fans who had begun growing restless following two consecutive opening game losses in the NCAA tournament the previous two years.

''Another banner goes up in the Louisville gym,'' Pitino said. ''And we'll always be remembered by that.''

This season, Louisville won two games in Portland against Davidson and New Mexico and stayed out west, opting to fly to Phoenix for the West Regional instead of coming back to campus.

There, the Cardinals dominated No. 1 seed Michigan State and rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit against Florida to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2005.

To get back, Louisville must replace two starting seniors - forward Kyle Kuric and guard Chris Smith as well as forward Jared Swopshire, who is expected to graduate in May and transfer because there's not an open scholarship available.

''This team always played hard. The last eight, 10 games it really came together,'' Kuric said. ''It had a special bond I've never been a part of before. Proud to be on the team and proud of the guys, the way everybody stepped up.''

But the Cardinals must solve their shooting woes.

Louisville was 13th in the 16-team Big East - and 223rd in the nation - in field goal percentage at 42.2 percent.

Instead, the Cardinals had to rely on a gambling, aggressive defense that forced opponents to shoot 38.4 percent and finished second in the nation with 353 steals.

''We've never been a great shooting team,'' Pitino said. ''So to get to a Final Four, I've always felt, in 2005, we got it with Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia and Larry O'Bannon. All three guys could knock down the shots.

''This was not a team of great shooters. They had to win with confusing opponents and old-fashion hustle and doing it.''

Louisville's point guard and center should be set with Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. Freshman Chane Behanan exceeded expectations all season in the power forward role and finished against the Wildcats with 10 points and nine rebounds, just over his season average in each.

Fellow freshman Wayne Blackshear provided a glimpse, too, of what he could become. The highly heralded recruit out of Chicago needed shoulder surgeries on each arm and fell behind in conditioning. He finished with nine points in 14 minutes against Kentucky.

Mercurial sixth man Russ Smith and his ''Russdiculous'' play will be back, perhaps slightly more toned down and George Mason transfer guard Luke Hancock will be eligible, giving Pitino an added shooter and hope for another long NCAA run.

''We're only going to get better,'' Pitino said.

Tagged: Louisville, Kentucky, Russ Smith

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