Louisville punches ticket to Final Four

slider-generic-basketball-courtIt wasn’t easy, but in the end the teacher gave one final lesson to his favorite student.

Rick Pitino’s 4th-seeded Louisville Cardinals used a 23-8 run in the second half to edge Billy Donovan’s 7th-seeded Florida Gators 72-68 to win the West Regional Final at US Airways Center. With the victory, the Cards punched their ticket to the Final Four next weekend in New Orleans.

Louisville, who trailed by eight at halftime, switched from zone to man-to-man defense and slowly crept back into the game before taking the lead for good on a jumper by freshman Chane Behanan with just over a minute to play.

“They switched to man…we had some good looks,” Florida senior guard Erving Walker said. “But we didn’t knock ’em down down the stretch.”

Early the Cardinals had no answer for Florida’s three-point shooting as the Gators hit 8-11 (72.7%) and 14-21 (66.7%) overall in the first half. Junior forward Erik Murphy led the way with 10 points, while guard Kenny Boynton added nine.

Louisville continued to chip away at the double-digit lead, even with Behanan, senior Kyle Kuric and starting point guard Peyton Silva in foul trouble. 

Silva fouled out at the 3:58 mark with Florida clinging to a 65-64 lead. Sixth-man Russ Smith shifted over to the point and hit two clutch free throws in the final seconds to push the lead to three. The Gators had a chance to tie but Bradley Beal and Kenny Boynton both missed three-pointers and the Cards escaped with the come-from-behind win.

After the game, Florida coach Billy Donovan discussed coaching against his mentor and close friend Pitino.

“It was a great game,” Donovan explained. “I don’t think anyone enjoys losing, but if I had to lose I’m glad it was to him. I’m shocked he’s not in the Hall of Fame. I don’t think any coach has done more with less.”

Smith scored a game-high 19 points, while Behanan (who was named the West Regional Most Outstanding Player) added 17, plus seven rebounds and two blocks.

A reflective Pitino discussed his emotions facing Donovan with a Regional Championship on the line.

“It was difficult because of the way the game ended,” Pitino said. “They outplayed us for 32 minutes. And it really hurt inside. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching.”