ALBUQUERQUE, March 26 -- At one point in the first half Saturday, when Louisville trailed by 20 after West Virginia shot better than any team Rick Pitino has ever seen, the Cardinals coach gathered his team during a timeout. In the huddle, Pitino offered a history lesson as only he could.
Referencing three monumental comebacks of his career, including a 31-point, second-half rally by his Kentucky team against Louisiana State in 1994, Pitino told his players: "We were down 35 with 15 minutes to go. This is nothing." The second sentence, he conceded, was the only half-truth.
Kevin Pittsnogle, front, draws an offensive foul against Francisco Garcia, who missed part of Louisville's decisive rally after fouling out. West Virginia's Duriel Price is at right.
(Lucy Nicholson -- Reuters)
_____Louisville Rally Capsule_____
38-18, 2:53 left in first half.
19-9 over last 6:48 of regulation.
Larry O'Bannon scored 13 points in the game's final 10:10.
His players, hobbled and fatigued, listened, storming back to beat seventh-seeded West Virginia, 93-85, in overtime in the Albuquerque Region final at The Pit, earning Pitino his fifth Final Four appearance in what he called the most satisfying comeback of his coaching career.
Pitino became the first college coach to lead three schools to the Final Four. Fourth-seeded Louisville (33-4), in its first Final Four since 1986, will play Illinois on Saturday in St. Louis.
At the end, Pitino struggled through a cluster of hugs to midcourt to shake the hand of John Beilein, the West Virginia coach who had taken his Mountaineers (24-11) from the NCAA bubble to a hair away from the Final Four. Pitino likened the emotions to those following the 1992 East Region final, when Duke outlasted Pitino's Kentucky team, except this time he was on the opposite side.
Ever the genius in rebuilding programs to championship caliber, Pitino was in vintage form this season, directing a squad the coaching staff wasn't sure could even make the NCAA tournament after being depleted by injury and two NBA defections.
Louisville lacks the overwhelming talent of Pitino's Kentucky teams and the Cinderella component that defined his Providence team that reached the 1987 Final Four. Instead, these Cardinals are bonded by tragedy -- multiple players, including stars Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, have lost family members to unexpected deaths -- and strengthened by their collective character, which was never more apparent than Saturday.
The Mountaineers made 10 of their first 13 three-point shots -- and 18 of 27 overall -- to render Louisville's aggressive 2-3 zone harmless. West Virginia's Patrick Beilein banked in a three-pointer and swished another from 30 feet away. Kevin Pittsnogle, a center, sank a fadeaway three-pointer. The Mountaineers led 38-18 with 2 minutes 53 seconds remaining in the first half.
"I've never had to abandon a whole scouting report before halftime," Pitino said. "But I felt it had to be abandoned because their [Louisville's players] confidence was down."
So Pitino went back to his roots, switching to a man-to-man defense and employing full-court pressure that was reminiscent of his Kentucky teams, minus the depth. It was Louisville's only hope; it didn't matter that Pitino felt "we're banged up more than you can imagine," or that Dean cramped up late in the game, or that Garcia fouled out with four minutes remaining in regulation.
Dean continued to play, making seven three-pointers en route to 23 points. With less than a minute remaining in overtime, he knelt on the floor and pounded it with his fist -- the Cardinals had done it, somehow.
"In overtime, I felt we were definitely going to win this," Dean said. "We had the fire the guys had in their eyes."
The opening 20 minutes looked like a highlight tape of Beilein's intricate, Princeton-style offense. The Mountaineers had 12 assists on 13 baskets and did not commit a turnover until nearly 10 minutes had elapsed.
West Virginia's chance to win the game occurred in the final minute of regulation. With 6.2 seconds left, Louisville's Brandon Jenkins blocked a mid-range jumper by J.D. Collins, sparking a Cardinals' fast break that nearly ended the game at the buzzer.
But in the final minutes of overtime, the two players who had keyed West Virginia's improbable March, Mike Gansey and Pittsnogle (25 points), each missed critical three-point attempts, the same shots that they had made so effortlessly earlier.
When the final buzzer sounded, Garcia immediately rushed to Pitino and clutched his black sport coat, not wanting to let it go. Through 45 minutes Saturday, Louisville never let go of its preseason goal: a national championship.
"My pride level is as high as it could be," Pitino said. "I've never seen anything like it in my life."