A pattern is emerging at Louisville, and it's not just that the Cardinals are winning indiscriminately. They've developed this habit of routing opponents, a fortunate trait when you are in the Final Four.
The seventh-ranked Cardinals came hurtling out of last weekend's NCAA West regional, devastating North Carolina by 94-79, and then blithely sweeping by Auburn Saturday, 84-76. Scores like those, coupled with a winning streak that has reached 15 games, give the Cardinals a lot of momentum going to Dallas for a matchup with Louisiana State.
"When the going gets tough, we've been able to do things right," Coach Denny Crum said. "Early in the season, we made mistakes late in the game, but since we've been on our winning streak, we've been able to play good defense, get the tough rebounds and hit the clutch free throws late in the game."
That was particularly clear against Auburn (22-11); the victory in the regional final indicated just how well the Cardinals (30-7) are doing things right now. The Tigers gave them a scare for more than 35 minutes, taking a 70-69 lead with 3:34 left. But Louisville bided its time and ran off six straight points to lead by 75-70 with 1:53 to go. Auburn got no closer than three thereafter.
What was most clear is that the Cardinals have become a beautifully well-rounded team, with all five starters averaging in double figures. In addition, they are startlingly versatile: a team that has rarely varied from its stock-and-trade man defense, they went to a one-one-three zone with nine minutes remaining and played it to perfection, shutting off Auburn's inside game and forcing forward Chuck Person to go to his outside shot. Person, the game's leading scorer with 23 points, was two for six from the field in the last few minutes.
Forced to slow the tempo in the zone, Louisville also was forced to go to an uncharacteristic half-court game. But the defense and foul shooting are what eventually beat Auburn. The Cardinals made 16 of 20 foul shots in the second half, including seven of nine in the last 54 seconds. They beat North Carolina in the same way, making 15 of 16 free throws in the last 3:03.
"They're incredibly balanced," Auburn Coach Sonny Smith said. "Look at the five guys in double figures. And they've got a great bench. Their organization from top to bottom is super, and we can't say they didn't deserve to win."
What was particularly significant about Louisville's play against Auburn was that its two youngest members helped greatly. Sophomore forward Herb Crook had a team-high 20 points and 11 rebounds, and freshman center Pervis Ellison scored 15 points, got 10 rebounds, made three steals and blocked two shots to help make the unfamiliar zone work.
It was Ellison who led the Cardinals on what was their only sustained scoring run of the game. He had a tip-in during the six-point run, then set up perhaps the crucial defensive play of the game.
It came with 1:53 remaining. He blocked center Jeff Moore's driving shot from the lane, and knocked it straight to guard Jeff Hall, who took it all the way down for a layup. That made it 75-70.
Hall and Ellison said they were thinking along the same lines. Ellison usually keeps his blocks in play, and Hall often has benefited.
"I was kind of guessing along with Pervis," Hall said. "He made a perfect block; he knows how to get it into another player's hands."
"I saw Jeff," Ellison said, "and I hit it hard to get the ball out to him. I guess Jeff knew something was going to happen."
The communication is typical of the Cardinals at this point, and it is probably a result of a number of ordeals they have been through. Not only have they gone on an apparently unstoppable streak, but they started it while playing the second-toughest regular-season schedule in the country, behind Maryland's. Of their seven losses, six came on the road to top-20 teams. In the regular season they played 13 teams that went on to the NCAA tournament.
With that sort of experience, the Cardinals seem to have acquired the kind of impassiveness needed to survive scares. While the schedule hurt the Cardinals early -- they started out 11-6 -- it turned out to be perhaps the decisive factor in the season.
"I think we've learned a lot from games against top 10-teams," guard Milt Wagner said. "We have a very poised team right now."