A win at Pittsburgh in February jump-started Louisville's hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament. Now the 13th-ranked Panthers are standing between No. 12 Louisville and a spot in the Big East tournament championship game as the two squads meet Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Louisville (23-8), which finished second in the Big East by virtue of its Feb. 12 win over Pittsburgh (26-6), lacked marquee wins heading into the contest at the Petersen Events Center -- where the Cardinals led almost wire-to-wire in a 66-53 victory. Rick Pitino's team extended its winning streak to seven in a row following an 82-71 double-overtime victory over West Virginia in the quarterfinals on Thursday.The Cardinals were 6-2 on the road in Big East play, and the players credited the poise they learned in those games as a key reason they won after squandering a 17-point lead to the Mountaineers before breaking open a close game with a 9-0 run to start the second extra period."Playing those six games that we won on the road helped us tonight because it got to the time where you can't be nervous out there," said Terrence Williams, who scored 21 points. "You have to play basketball."Freshman guard Edgar Sosa -- a New York City native -- helped Louisville avoid an upset with a length-of-the-court drive for a game-tying layup in the closing seconds of regulation after West Virginia had taken a lead."(Sosa) epitomizes what you've heard for the last 30 years about a New York City point guard," Pitino said. "He has no fear of anything, he's going to play with a lot of emotion and a lot of passion. More than anything else, what I think it means is he's faced the best competition, whether its on the playground or AAU or at his high school."While Louisville is trying to reach its first Big East title game after joining the conference in 2005, Pittsburgh is trying to return to the championship game for the sixth time in seven years. The Panthers matched a season high in points in their 89-79 victory over 18th-ranked Marquette in the other night quarterfinal game Thursday, gaining a small measure of revenge for their loss to the Golden Eagles last Saturday that cost Pittsburgh a share of the regular-season Big East title."It motivated us," said Mike Cook, who had 16 points. "In the back of our minds we knew we would have a chance to play them in the first round of the tournament. We just wanted to come out and prove that we still are the best team in the Big East."Aaron Gray also had a solid game with 22 points and 10 rebounds as Pittsburgh had five players in double figures and got to the foul line 41 times, making 27. Gray, who averages team highs of 14.6 points and 10.1 rebounds, notched his third consecutive double-double and 15th of the season in Thursday's win."I think I had some big baskets tonight, sometimes to stretch the lead out a little farther, sometimes to stop a run that Marquette had," the 7-foot center said.Louisville is one of only two teams to hold Pittsburgh below 40 percent shooting in a game this season. David Padgett had 16 points and four blocks as the Cardinals limited the Panthers to 35.4 percent shooting.The winner of this game will play either top-seeded and No. 9 Georgetown or fourth-seeded and 20th-ranked Notre Dame in the championship game Saturday.