A freshly cut net draped around his neck, Louisville junior guard Peyton Siva clutched the Big East tournament MVP trophy.
Not bad for a player who nearly was forced to grab something else a few weeks back by Louisville coach Rick Pitino: A spot on the bench. It’s not clear what a healthy, confident and composed Siva will mean to the Cardinals come NCAA tournament time, but that combo was enough to push Louisville to its second Big East title in three years, capped by a 50-44 victory at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
"He (Pitino) was going to take me out of the starting lineup once, but he told me he had faith in me," Siva said. "He said it was a brand new season and told me to focus on my defense and pushing the tempo. It was hard for me."
Siva, who was picked by some experts to be the top point guard in the nation this season, sprained his left ankle during practice on Nov. 14. He was forced to sit out two games because of to the injury and it looked like after-effects zapped some of Siva quickness and, eventually, some of his confidence.
Pitino was asked about Siva’s mindset in the wake of a 58-49 loss to Syracuse in Louisville’s regular season finale on March 3. He scored just four points with four assists and six turnovers in that contest.
"I think he hears it — he’s not playing well — and he’s a very sensitive young man, so he presses," Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal.
The solution — coming from a coach who has seen his share of adversity over a distinguished career — was simple, Siva said.
"He just told me not to listen to anybody and press the reset button," Siva said. "He wanted me to start over. That’s what I did. I wanted to block everything out and stop reading everything."
That meant no Twitter — Louisville players are already banned from using the social networking service anyway — and keeping off Facebook, message boards and anything else that even mentioned the Cardinals.
The blackout seems to be working. Siva averaged 13.8 points in the Cardinals’ four Big East tournament games — more than four points better than his regular season average of 9.1. He had 10 points on Saturday, but he also was as responsible as any Louisville player for Cincinnati’s unsteady play.
Cincinnati scored all of 14 points in the first half as the Bearcats shot 24.1 percent from the floor.
"Tonight, we played Cashmere Wright, one of the best point guards in the Big East, and we tried to hold him," Siva said. "We just wanted to dig through and hold on."
Held to four points in the first half, Wright broke through with 12 in the second as the Bearcats mounted a comeback and eventually cut what had been 16-point lead to four — the product of a four-minute scoring drought by Louisville after a Siva layup with 4:27 left in regulation.
Russ Smith finally halted the skid with two free throws with 28 seconds left to ice the game.
Siva became the first Cardinals player to win the Big East tournament MVP named in honor of Dave Gavitt, the first commissioner of the conference.
"He struggled a little bit earlier in the season, but he’s one of the best point guards in the country," Louisville center Gorgui Dieng said. "He deserved that trophy. I don’t want to give excuses, but he was hurt for a long time. He’s healthy now."
There was a scare late in the first half when Siva tangled with a Cincinnati player and tumbled into the first couple rows behind the baseline. Siva came up limping, but returned to the game.
He returned to the seats — this time on the opposite baseline — under happier circumstances once the game had concluded to find his parents. To see the proud look on the their faces as they waited for their son to venture past the media tables to find them said more than any tweet, post or blog entry.