PHOENIX — Louisville Coach Rick Pitino has presided over 616 victories during his 26 seasons in charge of four college basketball programs, but he never felt as conflicted after any of those other wins the way he did Saturday. His team had just erased an 11-point second-half deficit and advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 2005.
But after the fourth-seeded Cardinals’ 72-68 win over seventh-seeded Florida in the West Region final, Pitino found himself nearly apologetic as he met with Gators Coach Billy Donovan — a man Pitino considers as his seventh child — briefly at midcourt.
“I said: ‘Billy, I feel bad. I feel terrible, man,’ ” Pitino said. “He said: ‘Are you kidding me, Coach? I am so happy for you.’ That just didn’t happen in this world.”
For so many reasons, Pitino’s latest victory wasn’t supposed to happen. Saturday was supposed to mark the first time Donovan defeated Pitino in seven tries. Florida made 8 of 11 three-pointers in the first half and carried an eight-point advantage into halftime. Pitino was issued a technical foul with just less than 11 minutes to play after his second starter had collected a fourth foul.
The Gators led by 11 with just more than eight minutes remaining in the second half.
But Pitino had been in a similar situation seven years earlier. In 2005, as the fourth seed in the West Region final in Albuquerque, Louisville had fallen behind West Virginia by 13 during a first half in which the Mountaineers made 10 of 14 three-pointers. The Cardinals won that game in overtime, 93-85.
So rather than panic, Pitino made adjustments. The Gators easily found holes along the perimeter in Louisville’s 2-3 defensive zone to take open shots, so Pitino told his team to switch to a matchup zone. And when that didn’t work, Pitino told his players to play man-to-man defense, something the Cardinals rarely practice.
“But the great thing was [Pitino] showed us their plays [against man-to-man defense] before the game,” Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said. “He said: ‘Just in case we do have to go man, here’s what they’re going to do. But we might not use it at all.’ He’s a great coach, and he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.”
The Gators missed all nine three-pointers they attempted in the second half. But foul trouble continued to hamper Louisville throughout the afternoon. Siva, who finished with nine points and eight assists, fouled out with just less than four minutes to play. Siva’s fourth foul led to Pitino’s second technical of the season.
“Once [Pitino] got the technical, it just seemed like it was the last straw,” Louisville forward Kyle Kuric said. “In this game, it was kind of like calls weren’t going our way and shots weren’t going in. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong. So it was like, ‘Okay, they’re not going to give it to us, so we have to fight and win.’ ”
Louisville embarked on a 12-1 run and tied the score with a contested basket by forward Chane Behanan with just more than three minutes remaining. Florida scored three points in its final 14 possessions, shooting 1 for 12 from the field during that span.
Another close-range basket by Behanan — who finished with a game-high 19 points — put the Cardinals ahead with 61 seconds to play. Moments later, two free throws by reserve guard Russ Smith (17 points) pushed their lead to three.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Pitino to defeat his protege. When they first coached against each other 17 seasons ago, Pitino’s team won by 41. And though his averaged margin of victory against Donovan’s teams stood at 21.3 points entering Saturday’s contest, the previous two wins had come by a combined 12 points.
This isn’t Pitino’s best team, but it is one he has said he enjoys coaching almost as much as any other.
“I think if you look at us on paper and you watch . . . you’re not impressed,” Pitino said. “But when you have to play against us and your legs are giving out, in the last five or six minutes of so many games — beauty is not in the eye of the beholder when you look at our basketball team. But you can see the potential.”