NEW ORLEANS – Louisville couldn’t buy a shot with a fistful of fifties on Bourbon Street on Saturday night.
In the biggest game to date of the Rick Pitino era – the game in which little brother Louisville squared off against Bluegrass State bully Kentucky for a shot at the national title – the Cards folded in a 69-61 loss.
Said Pitino: “We wanted to do three things in this game: control the backboard, take them out of transition. We didn’t want to put them to the [free-throw] line; we accomplished the second thing. The third thing we had to do is we had to score to get our press on, and we didn’t accomplish that one.”
Indeed the Cardinals won the boards – 40-33, including 19-6 on the offensive end – but putting the ball in the hole proved to be difficult: 24-for-69 (34 percent) from the field; 4 of 11 (36 percent) from 3-point land; 9-for-13 (69 percent) from the free-throw line.
Compared to the Cardinals’ season averages – 42 / 31 / 68 – the national semifinal game is a bitter pill to swallow, especially at the hands of rival UK.
Louisville entered the Final Four shooting 42 percent from the field, 39 percent from behind the 3-point arc and 70 percent from the free-throw line through four games in the NCAA tournament.
Through the first 20 minutes of play Saturday night, the Cardinals were 37 / 33 / 60 – and yet, only trailed the top-seeded Wildcats 35-28. Could an upset be brewing deep within the recessed corners of Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo?
Midway through the second half, it was worse: 34 / 40 / 57 – and UL still was in the game, trailing 48-44. Could the French Quarter contain the Cardinals’ fans celebration – especially in knocking off Big Blue Nation en route to the championship game?
With 9:09 remaining, Peyton Siva drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 49 and bring the UL faithful to their feet, full-throat. Could Louisville, which hadn’t been able to throw the basketball into the Mississippi River, possibly extend its magical March run into April?
“I felt the rest of the way we were going to win,” Louisville senior Chris Smith said. “Everybody thought we were going to win the whole game, and the team, because we had confidence.”
Alas, it was to be the last gasp of a dying season …
“We came up a little short,” Pitino said. “We’ve never been a great shooting team .. this was not a team of great shooters. They had to win with confusing opponents and old-fashioned hustle.
“We’re only going to get better,” he promised.
Knotted at 49, Kentucky reeled off a 20-12 run to end the game and earn a berth in the national championship game Monday night against the Kansas-Ohio State winner.
In the end, much of the Cardinals’ shooting woes can be attributed to UK’s All-America forward Anthony Davis.
“He can change every shot,” Smith said of Davis’ presence.
“He just has great length, so he’s able to alter shots” UL senior Kyle Kuric added. “It’s difficult for guards like Peyton [Siva] and Russ [Smith] to get a clean look [at the basket] like they usually do.”
Davis finished with five blocks, 14 rebounds and 18 points – all game highs.
“When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 world championships,” Pitino said. “When you see this young man [Davis] at the collegiate level, you realize why [Kentucky’s] so good.
“Not that their other players aren’t – but he’s so much of a factor.”
However, Pitino said he will be pulling for the Wildcats, which won the national championship in 1996 under Pitino.
“Love to see Kentucky bring it home,” Pitino said. “We’re going to root for Kentucky. We like their basketball team and we hope they bring it home to the state.”