Cardinals rely on up-tempo defense to spark rally
With West Virginia torching the nets, Rick Pitino and Louisville made a critical move to rally back: they abandoned their vaunted zone.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. When Patrick Beilein took a swing pass, calmly squared up and let fly from the middle of the Lobos logo a good 30 feet from the West Virginia basket, it was the ultimate heat check.
When his shot ripped through the net to stake the Mountaineers to a stunning 27-11 lead with 7:22 left in the first half, it appeared to signify this was indeed WVU's day.
|• Providence (1987) -- lost to Syracuse 77-63 in semifinals.|
|• Kentucky (1993) -- lost to Michigan 81-78, OT in semifinals.|
|• Kentucky (1996) -- beat Massachusetts 81-74 in semifinals; beat Syracuse 76-67 for championship.|
|• Kentucky (1997) -- beat Minnesota 78-69 in semifinals; lost to Arizona 84-79, OT for championship.|
|• Louisville (2005) -- vs. Illinois in semifinals.|
It also did something that ultimately made sure it wasn't it forced Louisville head coach Rick Pitino to mothball the Cardinals' 2-3 zone.
The gimmicky defense that had treated them so well down the stretch of the season and had baffled Georgia Tech and Washington in Louisville's last two games was being eviscerated. Pitino had no choice.
So first he went back to man-to-man and, after the Mountaineers had rained three more triples to finish the first half with 10 and a 13-point bulge, he reverted to his staple full-court trapping pressure.
It worked. Louisville rallied from 20 down late in the first half to win 93-85 in overtime, sending the Cardinals to the Final Four for the first time since 1986 and making Pitino the first coach to ever lead three different programs to the Final Four (Providence and Kentucky are the others).
"To go back and press at this altitude without a bench with the best players being injured is truly amazing," Pitino said. "I've never seen anything like this as a coach in 31 years."
A few weeks ago, Pitino said the Providence Elite Eight win in '87 against Georgetown was his most rewarding. But this one tops the list.
"West Virginia was banking in 3s and everything they were shooting was going in," Pitino said.
Yes, Beilein banked in a 3 before his loooooong-range connection combusted the zone, but his teammates were pure as well. The Mountaineers made 18 of their first 23 attempts from 3-point range. What did Louisville have to lose by going man?
"We knew we had to play man which we hadn't done in a long time and we just started to get them on defense, start turning them over and that was the turning point of the basketball game," Louisville senior Ellis Myles said.
"They crept back and they crept back and there's no doubt in my mind that that was going to happen," West Virginia coach John Beilein said. "Our kids hung tough and we had some tough breaks."
The Cardinals overcome some as well.
Louisville still trailed by four points when star guard (and primary ballhandler) Francisco Garcia fouled out with four minutes left. Taquan Dean had to go on and off the court because he was cramping. Still, the Cards finished off regulation with a 10-6 spurt to force overtime.
"We tear teams up usually in the man-to-man [but] I think that pressure kind of hurried us up in our offense and we didn't take our time and slow down." West Virginia's Patrick Beilein said. "It's frustrating 'cause we had them right there and to let it slip away hurts."
"The momentum was on our side and the fire that the guys had in their eyes, I had seen it," Dean said. "I knew that we were going to come through and pull it out."
They did. They got inspired play from regional MVP Larry O'Bannon, who scored a team-high 24 points, Dean, who chipped in 23, Brandon Jenkins, who had three steals, and Myles, who had a block and a steal.
"Our road to the Final Four was so difficult," Pitino said. "As a 4-seed we got [last year's] runners-up in Georgia Tech, the type of team that a 4-seed doesn't normally get. We got a very good 1-seed in Washington."
Pitino said the selection committee gave him plenty of fond memories by giving him this path to the Final Four. And he would relish in seeing Kentucky on the opposite bracket if the Wildcats were able to beat Michigan State to reach St. Louis too.
"I would love it because my good friend Tubby Smith would be there," Pitino said of the Kentucky head coach and his former assistant. "I want Kentucky to be there. They treated me like royalty and were nice enough to hang my jersey. They don't treat me like royalty now, but I'm the Louisville coach and I live with that every day of my life."
Getting to the Final Four after all the adversity he and his players have faced was even more rewarding for Pitino on Saturday night. He flew in the nieces and nephews of his two late brothers-in-law.
"I wanted to see the smile on the faces of my team, for our fans and personally for my family that has suffered so much," Pitino said. "I wanted it for them. They know that their [fathers] were proudly looking down on them."
That's what makes this regional final his sweetest. A team that he thought would be a bubble team won the regional by coming back against one of the best shooting teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"I've been involved in some incredible comebacks, incredible," Pitino said. "[But] none ever so satisfying and as big as this one."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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