LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This is how Senior Day began at the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday, long before the fans arrived: Peyton Siva at the top of the key.
Siva for three, good. Siva for three, miss. Siva for three. Swish. Notre Dame arriving on the bus. Siva for three. The St. Patrick's Day Parade gearing up on Baxter Avenue. Swish from the right of the key. The zip of the net. The flip of a pass. The squeak of a shoe. From the left of the key, swish. Shoot, rebound, repeat. A hundred times. Another hundred.
When Siva nailed a pair of first-half three-pointers, the crowd roared. What the crowd didn't see is part of what made Saturday special for U of L. The work. Showing up early, staying late. Thirty family members waiting for him in the tunnel, but Siva keeping them waiting so that he can go out and sign autographs, mostly for children, taking pictures. Several say they want him to come to a special church program. He says he's busy, but he'd like to. His phone buzzes. He answers. They want him to come. But he stays and signs.
On the locker room board after U of L beat Notre Dame 73-57, Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino wrote the words, "9 games." That's how many the Cards would play if they swept through the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
If they had written out a script for this one on the board before the game, they couldn't have managed much better than what they got. A 16-point revenge beatdown of Notre Dame led by 20 points from Gorgui Dieng, who went through the senior ceremonies, and 13 points from Siva.
"It was a storybook ending at home for those guys," Pitino said.
But before the game, Pitino didn't have all the words he wanted. He made a short speech about his senior managers and about Mike Marra and Gorgui Dieng, but when he got to Siva, he started to say something, stopped, and just said, "All I gotta do is say the name, Peyton Siva, come on out."
"I had a little story," Pitino said later. "But I couldn't tell it. Every time I said his name, I got a little emotional."
U of L's win locked up a share of the Big East regular-season championship. On the heels of last season's Big East Tournament title, it marks the first time since 1994 and '95 (in the Metro Conference) that the Cardinals have won back-to-back league titles of any kind. U of L advances to the Big East Tournament as the No. 2 seed, where it will face either Big East giant-killer Villanova or tournament host St. John's at Madison Square Garden.
But the Cardinals (26-5, 14-4) appear to hitting their stride as they hit tournament time.
Certainly, Dieng is hitting. Several times, the KFC Yum! Center broke into chants of "One More Year!" If he keeps playing the way he played Saturday, they're not going to get it.
The junior turned in his best offensive game and added 11 rebounds, five blocked shots and three steals against a center many have penciled in as the first-teamer in the Big East. He finishes the regular season averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds a game, the first U of L player to average a double-double in the regular season since Clifford Rozier in 1993-94. In his final five regular-season games, Dieng averaged 15 points per game.
"We're playing for a seed right now," Dieng said. "We only have two freshmen, so everyone knows what this is about. We're confident but not arrogant. . . . Winning a Big East championship means a lot. I've never won it. I want to win everything in college basketball."
As for the senior day performance: "There's nothing to mention about it. We were wide open, and we made shots. I pump fake, if he jumps, I drive. We just play like we play all the time. We just defend and play, all my teammates contributed and we had a great win."
But there was something to mention about Dieng's performance, in Notre Dame coach Mike Brey's opinion. Dieng not only was deadly from midrange, but buried a turnaround jumper and shot-faked well enough to send Bob Knight into peals of ecstasy.
"When he is scoring like that, it is a whole another gear for them," Brey said. "They have had their offensive droughts and times when they can't score, but he looked like a pro tonight shooting turnaround jump shots, tough jump hooks over big guys, and he is making the 15-foot jump shot. He has this presence about him, he and Siva. Again, because we have had a lot of games against them, I have a lot of respect for those two guys. They are classy young men who are winners. . . . We just kind of ran into a buzz saw tonight."
The Cards continued to get big contributions from Luke Hancock (10 points, five rebounds, 2-4 from three-point range) and Kevin Ware (eight points). And the Cards made their free throws (15 of 19).
They jumped to the lead early, shot 67 percent in the half to lead by 10 at halftime. After Notre Dame pulled within five with 12-1/2 minutes remaining, the Cards scored the game's next seven points and the Irish, who have played U of L to overtime in six of their past eight meetings (including a five-overtime meeting last month), never threatened late.
"You know I just think we have a confident ball club that's not going to embrace it, not going to be overconfident," Pitino said. "We realize we can go to New York and lose to anybody, but we really want to win this tournament, because the more preparation chances you get, to play against different styles mentally, the physical part doesn't bother me. We can play six games in a row. We are not going to get out of shape, because of TV timeouts, but the mental preparation is so great for a team to see all these different things. And that's why I always put so much emphasis on conference tournaments at the end of the year. We are going in with a high, going in with everybody feeling good about themselves, and we have a lot of character."
After Marra's speech, and Dieng's brief comments, Siva took center stage, with the student section chanting his name and more than 30 family members, most from Seattle, crowding onto the court.
Siva thanked everybody, and when he got to his family, they began to walk up to him and, in the Samoan Hawaiian tradition, placed leis around his neck. And they didn't stop. They gave them to everyone, coaches, players, Pitino came into the postgame news conference wearing two. By the time they finished with Siva, they were nearly to the top of his head, "I couldn't see," he said. "I could barely breathe."
But he managed to thank "The man who brought me here, who recruited me, who loved me and pushed me every day, who called me every name in the book and I cry whenever I see him, but I also wouldn't be here without him, so a big shout out to Coach Pitino."
"It was great, really mainly because we were able to win a title and share it with the fans and win it in front of them," Siva said.
"It was a great touch for Peyton's family to do that for all of us, and it was a fitting ending for these special young men," Pitino said. "I am happy because we really did not have a bad game. Against Villanova, we did miss some free throws. But we really did not play a bad game this year. This is one of the more consistent teams I have coached. We are very excited, and are doing some really good things and now we have to go to New York and try to win a very important tournament because it is the last year for the Big East."
"I think we're ready," Dieng said. "If you look at this team today, I think we're ready. If we bring this same intensity, I don't see us losing. We just have to make sure the effort is there."