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Cardinals' win a special one for Pitino
As Rick Pitino stood on a podium celebrating Louisville’s Final Four berth with his players on Saturday afternoon, the veteran coach put the accomplishment in perspective.
“Outside of my six children, this is the happiest day of my life,” Pitino told the crowd.
It was quite a statement for the 59-year-old Pitino to make after his fourth-seeded team’s 72-68 comeback victory against his once-star player Billy Donovan’s seventh-seeded Florida in the NCAA tournament’s West Regional final.
After all, Pitino won a national championship with Kentucky in 1996. This will be his sixth Final Four appearance, and he's done it with three schools.
His first in 1987 is regarded as perhaps his most impressive. It came with a scrappy Providence team led by Donovan that was one of the most unlikely to ever make it.
So when Pitino declared Saturday was the happiest of his life except for the births of his children, you had to wonder if he had gotten caught up in the moment. Much like its run to this Final Four, his team had improbably rallied from an 11-point deficit with 8:16 left behind sophomore reserve guard Russ Smith’s fearless heroics and dodged three of Florida’s potentially game-tying 3-pointers in the final 17.6 seconds.
But at his postgame press conference, Pitino insisted he was being honest.
“I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys,” said Pitino, who now has a 7-0 career record against Donovan. “They give me every single thing they have in their bodies.
"And they’re just the most incredible group to coach.”
Pitino shouldn’t be worried about that with this overachieving Louisville team, which has now won eight straight games dating back to its run to the Big East tournament championship.
Unlike ousted defending national champion Connecticut, which went on its title run after also winning the Big East tournament last year, these Cardinals are largely anonymous without an expected first-round pick in June’s NBA draft, let alone even a known star.
In fact, during its current winning streak, Louisville has had six different players lead the team in scoring.
“If you look at us on paper, you’re not impressed,” Pitino said. “The beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder when you look at our basketball team.”
During the first half against Florida, Louisville looked like the team without the pedigree. It surrendered eight 3-pointers to a Gators team known for shooting them and trailed 41-33 at halftime.
Pitino, however, did not yell at his team during the intermission. Instead he decided to change his defense from a 2-3 zone to man-to-man for the second half and simply gave his players the same speech he had before the game.
“How bad do you guys want to win?” Pitino asked.
Until Saturday, junior point guard Peyton Siva had been the only player that twice topped Louisville in scoring during its current winning streak. But in a 19-second span in the second half, he picked up his third and fourth fouls, the latter of which also got Pitino a technical foul, and Florida’s lead ballooned to 11 points with 10:56 left.
And just like before during this unlikely winning streak, Louisville had someone step up — as in Smith. The same Smith who Pitino nicknamed “Russ-diculous” and teammate Chris Smith described as “the most erratic player I’ve ever played with.”
“I was actually pretty nervous because this is one of the first times that I really handled the ball in like a situation that was so serious,” said Russ Smith, who entered the game averaging 11.4 points.
Yet during the next six minutes Smith scored 10 of his game-high 19 points. Even after Siva fouled out with 3:58 left, he continued to steady the Cardinals’ game-ending 18-3 run.
Freshman forward Chane Behanan punctuated it with Louisville's last two baskets, the second of which finally gave his team the lead for good at 69-68 with 1:06 left.
It had been Behanan — voted the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player — who upon arriving last summer promised Chris Smith, a senior, that he would get him to a Final Four.
“At this time of the season and against the teams you’re playing against, you know teams are going to make a run at you,” said Donovan, whose team didn’t make a single 3-pointer in the second half. “That’s going to happen and they made a great run. I give them a lot of credit.”
Donovan also gave plenty after the game to Pitino, his mentor, who is one of 12 finalists for this year’s Basketball Hall of Fame, which will announce its new members next week.
He said he is “shocked” Pitino isn’t all ready a member.
“I don’t think there’s a coach in the country that’s done more with less,” said Donovan of Pitino’s career.
Before this season, Louisville players had to come up with personal goals. All, except junior forward Jared Swopshire, who wanted his family to become Christians, wrote down the Final Four.
“We’re playing with house money because everybody wrote us off,” Chris Smith said. “I just want to tell everybody, ‘Thank you for writing us off.’”
All along though, Pitino kept telling his players that if they won the Big East tournament, they would make the Final Four.
“And now they’re going to get this experience,” Pitino said. “And the only thing I’ve asked them is to not be satisfied by going.”
Pitino won’t let them though, especially with a possible matchup against in-state rival and former employer Kentucky looming in the national semifinals. Saturday may have been his happiest day, but his best day could still be to come.
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