PHOENIX — There were several numbers that defined Louisville center Gorgui Dieng’s night Thursday, but the one that might have most directly impacted the Cardinals’ ability to advance to the Elite Eight was his minute total: 40.
Dieng did not exit fourth-seeded Louisville’s 57-44 win over top-seeded Michigan State in the West Region semifinals until the final horn sounded, a fact no Spartan needed to be reminded of afterward. Dieng, a 6-foot-11 Senegal native, tallied nine rebounds, seven blocks and three steals and played a significant role in improving Coach Rick Pitino’s career Sweet 16 record to 10-0.
The Cardinals will play Florida in Saturday’s West Region final.
Pitino said his team carried three primary objectives into Thursday night’s game. Louisville aimed to limit Michigan State’s effectiveness from beyond the three-point arc, and the Spartans shot 5 of 21 (23.8 percent) from three-point range.
The Cardinals wanted to outrebound Michigan State, one of the most efficient board-crashing squads in the nation. Louisville claimed a 39-36 rebounding edge.
“And then, three, we wanted to protect Gorgui with our life,” Pitino said. “We felt that if we could keep Gorgui in the game, we could beat them.”
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said the first half — in which neither team shot better than 28 percent — was more a reflection of offensive ineptitude than defensive mastery.
But the Spartans’ continued struggles in the second half were due to Louisville’s pressure defense and Dieng’s presence in the middle. He entered the night averaging 3.1 blocks per game, which ranked No. 8 in the country, so Michigan State was aware of his capabilities. But he proved far more difficult to evade in real time than it seemed would be the case on film.
Michigan State had the ball, trailing by eight with just more than four minutes to play. The Spartans had scored five unanswered points and fed the ball inside to reserve forward Derrick Nix. Nix forced up a shot, but Dieng swatted it away.
“We got some good things going inside, but he did what he do best,” said Michigan State forward Draymond Green, who finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds. “Derrick Nix and [Spartans center Adreian Payne], they did the moves they always use and that work, but [Dieng] played solid defense. He was the anchor in the middle for them.”
Green, the Big Ten player of the year, did not escape Thursday night unscathed, either. Louisville took the first double-digit lead of the game with just more than 13 minutes to play after Dieng blocked Green’s layup attempt. The ensuing Cardinals possession concluded with an alley-hoop dunk by point guard Peyton Siva to put Louisville up by eight.
Then Louisville’s full-court press forced a steal on the Spartans’ inbound play, and the Cardinals converted two free throws moments later to push its lead to 35-25.
“This game, it couldn’t be nice,” Dieng said. “We knew we had to be tougher than them to win this game.”
Though Dieng scored just five points, one of his two made baskets left an impression, as well. With just more than four minutes remaining in the first half, Dieng took his second three-point attempt of the season. It went in.
Dieng “is what he is,” Izzo said. “I mean, he’s not a three-point shooter, but he made one of those so it was a pretty good night for him.”
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