INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Bones can break. Hearts can break. But for the University of Louisville basketball team, its bond did not break.
After Gorgui Dieng broke his wrist and the University of Louisville lost to Duke in November, Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino gathered his team in the locker room and told his players, "Don't worry, guys. We're going to play them again in March. We'll have Gorgui back. And we're going to beat them."
Deing came back, Duke rolled back around, and in a halftime locker room gathering, Pitino had another break to mend with a wounded team in shock from the gruesome fracture of Kevin Ware's right leg in the first half. He gathered his team and said, "If we don't get him home to Atlanta (home of the Final Four), it wasn't worth playing this season."
What happened next was what Pitino had predicted back in November. Call it foreshadowing. Call it fortitude. But also call it Final Four. The Cardinals dismantled Duke 85-63 to return to the Final Four a second straight season, and for the tenth time as a program.
And while the dramatic events surrounding Ware grabbed the immediate attention of the sports world and beyond, there was some high drama between the lines, a level of character and execution that itself began to draw praise after the initial shock of Ware's injury faded.
"So much for there being no dominant team in college basketball," analyst Seth Davis pronounced on CBS. "That was a dominant performance."
It seems trivial to think about it now, but the big concern before the game was a case of strep throat that was sweeping through the roster and even coaching staff. Pitino was worried, and it did manifest itself on game day. Every perimeter jumper Russ Smith took came up short. So he scored 22 points without one. The Cardinals would make only two three-pointers in the entire game.
How do you beat Duke by 22 without the three-point shot? The victory was drawn up in advance by Pitino with some hard-and-fast goals on offense and defense.
Defensively, Pitino told his team it could not allow fast breaks, because that's where Duke gets a large number of its three-point attempts. Duke got two fast breaks the entire game. With the three-pointer neutralized, they could concentrate on the primary offensive threats -- guard Seth Curry and forward Ryan Kelly.
"We felt if we would take away the three and trap (Curry) in the zone after trapping him match-up man, we could keep them out," Pitino said. "They did a very good job of driving it. But I felt that if we could keep them out of transition and keep the three away from them, we had a great chance of winning. We just -- we wanted to take Kelly and Curry out."
The defense Pitino employed was a bit of a throw-back to last season's switching schemes, a zone front that would trap if the ball went to Curry with the rest of the players picking up man-to-man. It was, almost, one defense when Curry did not have the ball, and another when he did.
It was so unorthodox that Duke players were at a loss to explain it after the game, some saying it was a kind of box-and-one.
"You don't see it on a day-to-day basis because it's not just running a zone press," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They run multiple defenses."
"They were throwing two bodies at me," Curry said. "I was trying not to force it. My teammates were getting good looks in the first half. . . . They did a good job in the first half of just being conscious of where I was at all times and switching a lot of stuff. Credit them."
As far as neutralizing Kelly, the plan was more simple. Go at him. Get him into foul trouble and off the court. Kelly picked up two fouls in the first eight minutes and left the game. When Krzyzewski brought him back with 8:15 left in the half, U of L senior point guard Peyton Siva drove right at him and he picked up Foul No. 3 six seconds later.
In the first half, U of L coaches estimated they missed only three or four defensive rotations. Yet they led by only three. Duke was dominant on the boards in the first half, and Duke executed well offensively itself. And after the injury to Ware with a little over six minutes left, Pitino felt fortunate to have just held things together and salvage any lead at all.
The halftime talk was the shortest all season. Pitino didn't want his team sitting around too much thinking about Ware. But in some ways, the halftime discussion spoke to the bond between coach and team.
"At halftime, he told us -- he was actually telling us how to adjust, and I was trying to cut him off like, 'Coach, they're playing like this.'" Siva said. "And he's like, 'Can you listen to me? I got this.' In the second half, he told us just to set the screens higher. That was all. Set higher ball screens. He's just a master of what he does."
Offensively, U of L changed something on Saturday, with an assist from former Cardinal assistant and full-time coach's son and Florida International head coach Richard Pitino. He suggested that the high ball screen that the Cards were running for Smith and Peyton Siva was a bit too flat, that the guards were great when moving north and south on the court, but less effective moving laterally. So the screening was adjusted to get the guards moving more directly to the basket, and some screening action was installed to get Duke defenders running toward the guards to defend the ball-screen, creating even more of a problem keeping them out of the paint.
It was just a matter of one more halftime adjustment -- setting the ball screen up higher on the court to improve spacing -- that broke the offensive floodgates open for the Cardinals.
"Peyton at halftime said: 'Coach.' I said, 'I've got it, Peyton.' . . . I said, 'I see what's going on. You're paying the price. I'm doing nothing. So here's what we're going to do with that pick and roll.' And he said, 'I gotcha.' I'm getting old, but I'm not blind yet. I said, 'I see it. I know exactly what you're talking about.' And his play was magnificent tonight. Russ' play was magnificent. We were running a lot of things for Gorgui (Dieng) to get a foul-line jump shot because he's mastered that very well. I thought Chane (Behanan) was big on the glass.
"I told the guys tonight, if this is the Russ Smith show and you don't all chip in, we can't go to a Final Four and have a potential championship. I said it was Gorgui and Russ last game; if everybody doesn't play their part in this game on offense and defense, you can't beat Duke. And they all did. And I'm real proud of that."
Krzyzewski was trying to counter. He took Curry off duty in handling the ball against the press and found him a couple of open three-pointers that tied the game at 42-42 four minutes into the second half. At that point, things looked bleak for the Cardinals. Fouls were mounting. Within a minute and 45 seconds, Siva, Dieng and Blackshear had already picked up their third fouls. The bench had been shortened with the absence of Ware.
It was only the darkness before the dawn. Smith shook off a pick and roll and drove for a layup and foul. His free throw put the Cards up three. Kelly missed a jumper and Siva buried one and the lead was five. Rasheed Sulaimon missed a three, Curry rebounded and Behanan stole it. Hancock missed a three, but Behanan grabbed the rebound and Siva drove for a layup and the lead was seven. Krzyzewski called timeout and the Blue Devils managed a couple of free throws on their next trip down.
Then Siva dropped the hammer. He found Dieng for a layup on the next trip, grabbed the defensive rebound off a Curry miss and streaked to the rim for a layup of his own to send the lead to nine. Duke would get no closer than that the rest of the game. After a pair of perimeter jumpers by Dieng, the Cards' lead was 13, and Duke was flailing offensively. After two empty possessions for each team, Dieng scored on a tip-in and the lead was 15. Duke's only offense, it seemed, was getting to the line. Mason Plumlee made two free throws, then Hancock buried a three and the 34,657 in Lucas Oil Stadium began to sense the victory.
Hancock has been tapping his head three times after every three-pointer this season. After that one, he tapped it five times. Kevin Ware's number.
It was a 20-4 run. In the final eight minutes of the game, the closest Duke would come to the Cardinals was 14 points.
"I thought we had a chance there, and then boom," Krzyzewski said. "And that's what they do to teams. They can boom you. They, whatever, my vocabulary isn't very good, but you I hope you understand what I mean. It's a positive thing for them. Not for us. . . . They were terrific today. We would have to play great to beat them today, and we were playing pretty well. And then, boom, there's that. Now I'm going to say that for the rest of my life. Hopefully, we're booming somebody else next year."
Dieng had a double-double in the second half alone -- 10 and 10 -- to finish with 14 points and 11 rebounds. He also had four blocked shots.
Behanan, probably the most distraught player after Ware's injury -- so distraught he had to come out of the game -- finished with eight points and eight rebounds. In the Big East championship, Behanan saw Montrezl Harrell playing well and told Pitino to leave the freshman out there. In this game, it was the opposite.
"Chane wanted to go back in the game tonight," Pitino said. "He told me, 'I'm ready when you are, Coach.'"
Smith was exhausted. He has been non-stop motion for four tournament games. His scoring total of 104 points is only 12 shy of Darrell Griffith's school tournament record. His scoring average of 26 points per game is poised to be the highest in the NCAA Tournament (among players to reach the Final Four) since Khalid Reeves averaged 27.4 per game for Arizona in 1994.
Siva played the best game of his U of L career. When Smith wasn't dissecting Duke, Siva was.
"This is the best game I've ever seen a team play from the standpoint of using every detail of a scouting report," video coordinator Doug Davenport said. "Right down to individual players and taking away tendencies, things you probably wouldn't see."
Krzyzewski said, "What they do, and Rick's done an amazing job with them, because they have depth and they keep coming at you, but they make you have multiple decision makers. You have to have more than one guy making a decision out on the court."
Duke outrebounded U of L 18-12 in the first half. U of L outrebounded Duke 25-13 in the second. Dieng had only three fewer rebounds in the second half than Duke's whole team.
The Blue Devils got only five second-chance points. They scored only a single fast-break basket. They managed only 36.5 percent shooting in the game. U of L shot 52.7 percent, and nearly 60 percent in the second half.
In the second half of their past two championship games -- Big East Tournament and Midwest Regional -- the Cardinals have scored a combined 106 points (outscoring opponents, and not just any opponents, but Syracuse and Duke, 106-57). They have shot 56.1 percent from the field. They have outrebounded the two opponents 47-28. And they have committed five turnovers.
"I don't watch all of college basketball, but it's the best team we've played," Krzyzewski said. ". . . Again, I've been doing this for a long time. Man, they were good. Bottom line, they're really good. And they were good. They were terrific today. I love those two guards. And then Dieng has become a great player. Not a good one, he's become a great player. So you get a lot of great players out there, it's going to be tough to beat them. And it has been tough to beat them. The only way to beat them is to take them to a fifth overtime. I think that's the only way to beat them, and we weren't going to do that today."
This U of L team began as a team that carried over last season's legacy of tremendous defense, but appeared challenged offensively. That is no longer the case.
"Our offense won the game," Pitino said. "Because it was wearing them out defensively and it was using the clock and we did a lot of really good things for Gorgui. We played north and south. Russ was dead. He was just gassed. Going forward, we've got to get Tim Henderson playing a little bit more, we've got to get Luke into the backcourt more. Kevin Ware was a big component to our defense and our offense. When Russ and Peyton press full court, drop back and dog the ball, run all those pick-and-rolls, you can't do it unless you get a break. But every, single guy tonight played big. Every one.
"Kevin is going to be fine. . . . We all know how good Michael Bush is right now, and Kevin has the same injury. The most important thing right now was to get him back home to Atlanta. And I'm proud of our guys for getting that done."
Almost lost in that, but something that shouldn't be lost, is the game's historical significance.
For Rick Pitino, it is Final Four No. 7, tying him with Roy Williams, and passing Adolph Rupp, Denny Crum and Tom Izzo. He joins Williams as the only coaches to take two different programs to back-to-back Final Fours. Only John Wooden, Krzyzewski and Dean Smith have more Final Four appearances than Pitino. During this tournament, he has improved his NCAA record to 46-16, and has passed John Calipari, Bill Self, Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan into third place among NCAA Tournament winning percentage among active coaches, trailing only Krzyzewski and Williams. A national title would send him past Williams. Next Monday, the Basketball Hall of Fame will announce its latest class. It will be an upset if Pitino is not in it.
For U of L, it marks the school's tenth Final Four. Only six other schools are in the double-digit club: North Carolina, UCLA, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State. Its 33 wins tie a school record.
A year ago, U of L was surprise Final Four team as a No. 4 seed, and played a supporting role in a state drama against a dominant University of Kentucky team that would go on to the national title. This year, it is the No. 1 seed and favored by 10 points in its national semifinal against Wichita State, the second-biggest Final Four favorite in the tournament's 64-team era.
As they did at the Big East, the Cardinals left the court without cutting down the nets.
"We aren't trying to make a statement," Pitino said. "I just gave our team some goals after we lost the five-overtime game at Notre Dame. I said, let's win the rest of our games, win the Big East Tournament, get back to the Final Four, and not cut down any nets until we win the national championship."
Pitino used the intact nets as something for his players to visualize, to make the goal concrete. This week in Atlanta, the vision will loom large in the window, and the team he'll take, hardened by heartbreak, has it firmly in focus.
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