Pirates now firmly on bubble
Seeking a quality win to improve its postseason resume, Seton Hall got picked off by Peyton Siva and stuffed by Gorgui Dieng.
Siva had 14 points and six steals, Dieng blocked six shots inside and Louisville held off the Pirates 61-55 on Wednesday night to reach the Big East tournament quarterfinals, leaving Seton Hall to sweat out Selection Sunday as it hopes for an NCAA bid.
''We're not the greatest offensive team, but we played really good defense. We're one of the top defensive teams in the country,'' Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said. ''We had 39 deflections tonight, which is very, very high.''
Kyle Kuric added 13 points and Dieng, a 6-foot-10 sophomore from Senegal who led the league in blocks, grabbed 10 rebounds to help the seventh-seeded Cardinals (23-9) advance to play ninth-ranked and second-seeded Marquette on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Louisville, the 2009 tournament champion, blew out Marquette in the quarterfinals last year before losing to Connecticut 69-66 in the championship game.
Russ Smith scored five of his 11 points down the stretch as Louisville thwarted Seton Hall's late charge to stop a two-game skid. The Cardinals, seemingly secure in the NCAA tournament field, fell out of The Associated Press Top 25 this week after losses to South Florida and No. 2 Syracuse.
Jordan Theodore scored 17 and Herb Pope had 11 points and 15 rebounds to lead the 10th-seeded Pirates (20-12), perched tenuously on the NCAA bubble as they look for their first berth since 2006. Seton Hall shot just 33 percent - including 3 of 19 from 3-point range - and lost for the 10th time in its final 15 games.
''I'm ecstatic the way the season went,'' Pirates coach Kevin Willard said. ''I believe this team deserves to be playing and its name called on Sunday. Again, I've always been under the belief that it's the total year, it's not just two games that you played bad maybe at the end of the year or a tough stretch. Our total resume is as good as anyone's out there.''
Willard was beaten by his mentor for the second time this season. He spent six seasons on the Louisville staff as an assistant under Pitino.
The Cardinals forced 17 turnovers, committing only nine, and matched their low for points allowed in a Big East tournament game.
''It starts with defense with us,'' Siva said. ''As long as we continue to play defense and continue to get steals, then that's when we're at our best.''
Siva keyed a 20-6 run to start the second half that put Louisville in control. The junior made two steals and a tough bank shot in the first 65 seconds after halftime. He added a breakaway dunk off a steal, then hit a 3 seconds later and pumped his fist emphatically.
''Peyton I thought played his best point guard game of the season with the exception of throwing it to Russ when we had the lead there at the break because Russ pays no attention to clock, time, score. He is just Pac Man. He just looks to gobble everything up and go to the rim. Outside of that he played terrific,'' Pitino said.
Kuric's 3-pointer made it 48-33 with 9:54 left, but the Pirates - perhaps playing for their NCAA tournament lives - wouldn't go down easily. They fought back and trimmed it to 59-55 on Theodore's 3 with 47.9 seconds to go.
Smith finally hit a free throw following three ugly misses, and Theodore was off on a pair of 3s before Kuric added another foul shot with 14.6 seconds remaining.
''For me and Herb at the end of our Seton Hall career, especially just leaving it up to the selection committee on Sunday, we wanted to go out there and just prove a point,'' Theodore said. ''We came up short tonight, so it's a tough one.''
Theodore led Seton Hall to a 79-47 rout of Providence in the first round Tuesday night, when the Pirates shot 56 percent from the field. The best 3-point shooting team in the league, they couldn't keep it up against Louisville's clamp-down defense.
The Cardinals came into the game holding opponents to 37.9 percent shooting from the field - the best mark in the Big East - and showed why.
''What we did a very good job of - because last night they had great confidence - we were going to take away the 3-point line, and we did a very good job of that,'' Pitino said.
After the win over Providence, Willard acknowledged it's always difficult to go up against Pitino, a man the Seton Hall coach twice referred to as a ''father figure.''
Willard also apprenticed under Pitino with the Boston Celtics. Pitino and Willard's father, Ralph, are longtime friends and the elder Willard was a lead assistant for years under Pitino.
A white-haired Ralph Willard sat right behind his son's bench, hand on chin with an uncomfortable look on his face.
Pitino's team lacks a big-name star, but the Cardinals get it done with defense. Theodore, who sliced his way through the Friars for 13 often-flashy assists and just one turnover, had no assists and four turnovers at halftime. The senior ditched his blue sleeves early in the game, exposing his many tattoos, but it didn't seem to help.
''Our goal tonight was one thing and only one thing, and that's to wear out Theodore,'' Pitino said. ''He is probably one of the top point guards in America in terms of what he does for a team, so our goal tonight is just to make sure he had no legs the entire game.''