PHOENIX – Is Louisville the next Connecticut?
The Cardinals took another major step toward matching the Huskies’ march last season to the national championship with a 72-68 comeback victory Saturday against Florida in the West Regional final.
Louisville used a stunning 23-8 closing run to earn its eighth consecutive postseason victory – four in the Big East tournament and four in the NCAA tournament – and move into the Final Four. The Cardinals (30-9) will face the winner of the Kentucky-Baylor game Sunday in the nationals semifinals Saturday in New Orleans.
‘‘I kept telling our guys, ‘Win the Big East tournament, and we’re going to the Final Four,’â€‰” said Louis-ville coach Rick Pitino, who will be going to his sixth Final Four and will be looking for his second national championship.
The victory was bittersweet for Pitino because he sees Gators coach Billy Donovan as a son. Donovan played for Pitino at Providence, and they went to the Final Four together in 1987.
‘‘I’ve said it’s not difficult playing against a coach I love so much, but today it was because they outplayed us for 32 minutes,” Pitino said.
Indeed, the Cardinals’ 11-point deficit with 11 minutes left seemed insurmountable, with Florida (26-11) shooting almost 67 percent from the field, including a blistering 73 percent from three-point range.
The Gators’ lead grew with the help of four free throws by guard Erving Walker, who sank two after being fouled by Louisville guard Peyton Siva and two more after Pitino was called for a technical.
‘‘I was yelling, ‘Why did you foul him?’ at Siva, and the referee thought I was yelling at him,” Pitino said. ‘‘Or I maybe deserved it because I came out of the [coach’s] box.”
When Siva, the Cardinals’ catalyst, fouled out with four minutes left, their chances looked dire. But guard Russ Smith became the unlikely hero, taking over the point and scoring 13 of his team-high 19 points in the second half.
‘‘I was actually pretty nervous because this is one of the first times I’ve handled the [point] that was so serious,” Smith said.
‘‘Sometimes Russ Smith is more dangerous than Siva,” Donovan said. ‘‘Russ Smith is sometimes crazy, but he made some great plays. He’s actually more explosive in some ways than Siva.”
Smith and forward Chane Behanan (17 points) teamed in the closing five minutes to stymie Florida, which saw its dreams of reaching the Final Four crushed in the closing moments for the second consecutive season.
‘‘It feels terrible,” Walker said, reliving the Gators’ 74-71 loss to Butler in the regional final last season. ‘‘We had a lead and gave it up late. Russ Smith made some great shots down the stretch.”
Florida had chances in the last minute, especially when guard Bradley Beal (14 points) stole a pass from Smith with 18 seconds left, then was called for traveling.
‘‘Personally, I’m happy for coach Pitino,” Donovan said. ‘‘I don’t think any coach enjoys losing in this situation, but if I had to lose, it would be to him.”
‘‘It hurts to see Billy lose,” Pitino said. ‘‘I’ve never wanted a Final Four more than in 1987 [with Providence] because my wife and I had lost a son, and I thought it would help distract. But to have these guys do it, they gave me everything. The only thing I’ve [told] them now is, ‘Don’t be satisfied.’â€‰”