Florida couldn't miss. The Gators might have well been throwing a rock in the ocean during the first half, as they nailed 8-of-11 from 3-point range to take a commanding 41-33 at the break. But head coach Billy Donovan had to have known that Louisville–led by his former mentor, Rick Pitino–would make adjustments for the last 20 minutes.
Pitino's Cardinals rallied from an 11-point deficit and closed the game on an 18-3 run to win the West Regional over the Gators on Saturday, 72-68. Needless to say, adjustments were made.
Louisville prevented Florida from making a 3-pointer the entire second half. In fact, the Gators missed six shots and committed a turnover during the final 2:30, failing to score after Kenny Boynton's layup with 2:39 left. Freshman forward Chane Behanan made the go-ahead basket for Louisville with 1:06 to play.
In a Gator-controlled first half, it looked like Donovan–who played for Pitino as a player at Providence, but has never defeated him as a coach–had finally gotten the best of his old teacher. The second half seemed to have been destined for Florida as well, considering Louisville was without star point guard Peyton Siva during the final 3:58, due to fouling out.
Pitino had another weapon on the floor though; a 6-foot sophomore guard named Russ Smith.
Smith finished with 19 points and followed Behanan's go-ahead bucket with a pair of clutch free throws that sealed the deal for Louisville in the waning seconds. Florida's Bradley Beal, along with Boynton, each missed last second heaves to tie the game on their last possession.
Pitino is now headed to his sixth Final Four–second with Louisville–and all he could think after the game was, "Hate to do that to ya, kid."
"Tonight, it was very difficult because of the way the game ended, because they outplayed us for 32 minutes," Pitino said. "And it really hurt inside. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching."
Coach Donovan was admirable in his words towards Pitino as well. "I said this earlier, for myself, I don't think any of us like losing," Donovan said. "But if someone said to me, 'You have to lose a game, who would it be to?' I would say him.' "
The Cardinals now take an eight-game winning streak to the Final Four in New Orleans next weekend, and Pitino had confidence in his team all along.
"What happens is, you can't lose confidence," Pitino said. "I kept telling our guys we're going to the Final Four. Win the Big East tournament, we're going to the Final Four. And they did."
Another great story line is the possibility of Pitino facing his old school, Kentucky. If the Wildcats defeat Baylor in the regional final game on Sunday, it could mean an in-state Final Four heavyweight fight of the decade.
"We think they're excellent. We think they're great. I coached there. It's great. Great tradition," Pitino said. "But we want to be Louisville. We have a different mission. They have a different mission. But we both want to get to a Final Four and win a championship."
All in all, Louisville's ninth ticket to the Final Four–and first since 2005– didn't come easy. It took a dramatic comeback against a coach's former son-like protege to get there. But it's fantastic that one can say, at the very least, that this high-profile grudge match showed nothing but class and sportsmanship on a stage that can normally wash out such terrific pillars of quality personas.
"I said, 'Billy, I feel bad. I feel terrible, man,' " Pitino said. "He said, 'Are you kidding me, coach? I am so happy for you.' That just doesn't happen in this world."
Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Josh Helmuth is the sports editor and lead baseball writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @Jhelmuth.