ALBUQUERQUE, March 24 -- Months before the season started, Louisville lost its two top recruits to the NBA. During the season, the Cardinals battled a string of key injuries, and after the season, they received what many felt was a surprisingly low seed in the NCAA tournament.
But Coach Rick Pitino reaffirmed throughout that the program remained on the trajectory he had expected in his fourth season with the Cardinals. Fourth-seeded Louisville provided the strongest evidence of its coach's claim Thursday, beating top-seeded Washington, 93-79, at the Pit in an outcome that might not be considered an upset.
Louisville's Francisco Garcia is pumped; he and Taquan Dean combined to make six three-pointers and score 24 points in the first half.
(Mike Blake -- Reuters)
Pitino said afterward that this year's team ranks with the Providence team he led to an unexpected berth in the 1987 Final Four as the "two most rewarding experiences of my coaching life."
The Cardinals (32-4) advanced to Saturday's region final, where they will play West Virginia.
"From Day One," Louisville's Larry O'Bannon said, "we had circled that our goal was a national championship."
Washington (29-6) built a seven-point lead, but Louisville's 21-5 run at the end of the first half helped give the Cardinals a 12-point halftime lead. The Huskies were an offensively challenged team with its two stars, Nate Robinson and Tre Simmons, sitting the final few minutes of the first half with three fouls apiece. Washington got no closer than six points in the second half.
Louisville has scrapped Pitino's trademark full-court press and employed a 2-3 zone to better avoid foul trouble. Injuries have hampered the ability to play man-to-man defense for 40 minutes and the depth of a team that lost star recruits Sebastian Telfair and Donta Smith to the NBA in the offseason.
The zone was particularly active Thursday, extending on perimeter players and limiting the blitzing Huskies to two fast-break points in the first half. Washington, which had averaged 92.5 points in two tournament victories, managed just 35 points by the break, while allowing 47, its highest of the season. Pitino's goal: Limit Washington's middle penetration and completely deny open three-point opportunities. The Huskies made only 6 of 25 three-point attempts.
Louisville's Francisco Garcia, who scored a game-high 23 points, and Taquan Dean combined to make 10 three-pointers and score 42 points. Garcia's back-to-back three-pointers at the beginning of the Cardinals' run gave them a five-point lead that only grew.
"Coach said when I am open," Garcia said, "please shoot the ball."
A significant concern for Louisville entering the region final is Dean, who sprained his right ankle late in the game. Although he came back to play with a limp, Pitino said: "I'm really concerned that he won't go on Saturday."
The tenor of Thursday's game was set before tip-off, when the ever-confident Robinson and Louisville's Ellis Myles exchanged words during warmups. In the first four minutes of the game, Washington's Bobby Jones ran straight into a hard pick set by Otis George near halfcourt that floored Jones.
Robinson played only six minutes in the half and did not make a field goal. While he was bubbly and dancing to the pep band's music before the game, he sat motionless on the bench in the waning moments of the first half, as the deficit ballooned to 12 points, Washington's largest halftime hole of the season.
The Huskies, who have not reached the Final Four since 1953, made less than 30 percent of their shots during the first 10 minutes of the game, but they were leading because of seven Louisville turnovers.
But Washington showed it was unable to contend with an effective zone defense or stay out of foul trouble, losing to a team that has now won 21 of 22 games in spite of everything it has endured this season.
"It says that they are great," Pitino said of his team. "We have so much character, and that's why we've been so good this season. Character wins."