Two incessant running teams wrung every point and possibility from today's West regional final, but seventh-ranked Louisville got the most out of it, defeating Auburn, 84-76, to advance to the Final Four.
In a game that exceeded all expectations, a school that had no apparent business here made it a thriller. Unranked and making its first NCAA tournament regional final appearance, Auburn (22-11) trailed by just 44-43 at intermission, took a one-point lead with 18:46 to go and did not trail again until 8:53 remained.
The Tigers even took a brief four-point margin, but never could build on the lead over those potential-filled 10 minutes. Louisville, a team that has won 18 of the last 19 and 15 straight, knew how to seize the momentum. The Cardinals (30-7) took the lead for good by scoring six straight points in a little more than a minute to make it 75-70 with 1:53 to go. They then pulled away to a meeting with Louisiana State next weekend in Dallas by making seven of nine free throws in the last 54 seconds.
"We got beat by what I consider a great team," Auburn Coach Sonny Smith said. "For the last 18 games I'd say they've been something better than fair."
In a game that was almost all offense, the Cardinals (30-7) may have won it with defense. They switched from a man defense to a 1-1-3 zone with about nine minutes to go to slow the tempo of a frenetic finale. With the slowdown, the Cardinals shut down Auburn's inside game and Chuck Person.
"We upset the tempo and got some runaways," Coach Denny Crum said. "Fortunately, it was the right move. It could have been the wrong one."
Particularly the way Person, who was named MVP of the regional, was playing. The 6-8 forward, who is widely regarded as the finest non-all-America in the country, finished with 23 points, but was just two for six from the field in the final 3:34, when his reliable jumper failed him.
"The guys looked for me and I was open, but I just didn't get it down," he said. "It didn't fall at the crucial time."
With Person unable to hit from the outside, the Tigers were left with nothing inside against the zone anchored by 6-foot-9 freshman Pervis Ellison. He had 15 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks, including a rejection that may have won the game.
It came with 1:53 remaining, Ellison batting away Jeff Moore's shot from the lane to set up Jeff Hall's fast break layup. That gave the Cardinals their 75-70 lead, and the Tigers never came closer than three again.
The Cardinals placed five players in double figures, as usual. Sophomore forward Herb Crook scored 20 with 11 rebounds, guard Milt Wagner had 16, Hall had 14 and forward Billy Thompson 13.
Auburn had four players in double figures, an indication of the offensive pace. In addition to Person, forward Chris Morris had 17 points, center Moore 11 and guard Frank Ford 13.
Person had given the Tigers their last lead with 3:34 left on a jumper that made it 70-69. But three of his six stretch misses came on that possession (all were in the 18-foot range) before he finally sank a 19-footer on the fourth try.
"He missed shots he made earlier," Crum said. "His percentage wasn't so good. But when he missed three there, then he buried it like an all-America."
That, however, was when the zone began to tell, and the Cardinals ran off their six straight points, virtually the only spurt either team could sustain in the period. Thompson made a layup, and then Person missed from the corner. That became Ellison's tipin of Thompson's miss.
Then came Ellison's block. Moore attempted to drive the middle against the zone, but the freshman knocked it back to nearly half court, right to Hall, who took off for the layup.
"It was a key," said Ellison, a shy 18-year-old, "but there were a lot of keys."
"I went straight to the hoop," Hall said. "Pervis had great timing, he knows how to keep it in play. He finessed it to me and I had the break."
The Tigers have lived by Person, a 52 percent shooter with outstanding range, all season. When he came up empty, the failings of the rest of the front court also showed. Shooting 63 percent in the first half, they cooled to 43 percent in the second half, largely a result of the zone that kept them from running.
Lousiville doesn't often use a zone. The Cardinals go with straight-up man defense "99 percent of the time," Crum said. "We hardly ever practice zone. We just wanted to change the tempo and maybe make them give up some mistakes. I thought if we could make them take that outside shot, maybe they wouldn't have as good a percentage as they did earlier because Chuck might be a little tired."
The Tigers' shortcomings on the front line showed in rebounding as well. They were outrebounded, 37-27, and rapidly got in foul trouble in the second half. Louisville went into the bonus situation with 13:52 remaining. While the Cardinals also were in trouble, Thompson picking up his fourth foul with 15:37 still to go, the Tigers were unable to get him to foul out. That, too, was a result of the zone defense, which protected him.
"The zone was a real tempo killer," Smith said. "I felt like we got the shots we wanted, but we missed . . . They won, and I can't say we didn't play good. We played as well as we can play."