INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) — University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino said it, after his team's 74-69 loss to the University of Kentucky in an NCAA Sweet 16 matchup before 41,072 fans in Lucas Oil Stadium.
"This is the end of an era for us," Pitino said.
Close the book. But it has been a great story.
Seniors Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson all will graduate. Pitino said he expects to lose sophomore Montrezl Harrell to the NBA Draft. The Cardinals' three-year run, which included two Final Fours, three conference regular-season titles, three conference tournament titles and an NCAA championship, ended when Smith's three-point try with the Cards' trailing by three came up short.
But Pitino said he wasn't going to dwell on the disappointment. His team was outscored 15-3 in the final 4 1/2 minutes, and made only one field goal in the final 6:11. He had to acknowledge that it didn't execute with the game on the line, and that Kentucky did. But he quickly pivoted.
"How can any of us complain with the run we've been on?" Pitino said. "We celebrated an awful lot the last three years. And with back‑to‑back Final Fours and now a Sweet 16. We don't like losing to Kentucky certainly, but you've got to give them credit. We try to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. We're going to be very gracious in this defeat because we've had a lot of celebrations, and it's the end of an era for us, for a lot of us. So it's something that we're certainly going to miss. We've lost Gorgui (Dieng), Peyton (Siva), and now we're probably going to lose Russ, Luke, Montrezl, and VT (Van Treese). It's the end of an era. And I as a coach certainly appreciate all their efforts."
Pitino perked some ears when he called it the end of an era "for all of us," and was asked after that whether he meant he might not return.
"I'm thinking about my players," he said. "I'm not thinking about myself."
It's never good to think about those kinds of questions after a difficult loss. But Pitino will look back on a core of players who reinvigorated his coaching career, who became his friends as well as his players, who were with him as he redefined his style and philosophy of coaching and life. He wrote a book, and woven all the way through it were his players, who in many ways lived out the precepts he was writing about even as he was motivating himself to put them into practice. Peyton Siva's every-day positive approach. Gorgui Dieng's wisdom. Luke Hancock's toughness. Russ Smith's flair for living.
Pitino isn't just losing players, he's losing peers, in some ways. Even in defeat, players said he told them he loved them after the game.
Hancock, in front of his locker, said he couldn't think about legacy. He was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player a year ago, and was the MOP for about three-quarters of Friday's game against UK. When Smith's contested late three came up short, Hancock was standing open on the wing.
In many ways, basketball was Hancock's escape after losing his father following last season's national championship. He played a season that did not end. Overseas with a USA basketball team, then straight into fall camp. He battled an ankle injury early in the season, but by January was back to his old self. Now it has ended, but Hancock's inertia continued. He struggled for answers.
"I honestly never for a moment believed our season was going to end here," Hancock said. "I never thought about it, never thought about having to answer these questions. It's tough. Everybody's asking about our legacy, it's going to be a while before I can think about that. It was right there for us to win. We should have won the game."
Russ Smith was able to put it into words. He reportedly visited the UK locker room after the game to congratulate the Wildcats' players. And he was touched that so many took extra time on the court after a big win to congratulate and encourage him.
"I don't hold onto losses," Smith said. "I don't hold grudges. I don't hate anybody. I'm a positive person, and I'll go on. At the end of they day, this was a loss. I just empathize with the fans. I wish I could've given them the win. I'm so sorry. But for me, we lost to a great team. And I have great respect for them. It's just another loss in the books for me.
"I'm just glad that I have a lot of respect around the state," Smith continued, "and people respect my craft and my body of work. I love my teammates. I'm glad to have gotten to play a part in their lives, from my teammates to managers to trainers to new freshmen, I'm grateful to be able to pass some stuff onto them. I'm glad that I've gotten to meet all the people I've met. And I'm glad I have Coach Pitino in my life. He's helped shape me into a man. He's made me the player I am. I was looked at as kind of a clown basketball player. Everyone thought I was a joke. And he transformed me into an All-American basketball player, all because of Coach, and Peyton and Gorgui. Without him in my life, I'd be upset right now, off crying, or yelling or making excuses. But I'm here in front of you, manning up. I take this loss like a man and I'll go out like a man."
Of UK's players, Smith said, "Those are a great group of guys. They show great love. You respect someone when you see a competitor out there on the court. From each class, from my sophomore year on, Kentucky's guys have shown me the same love. And these are new waves of classes, not the same people. So I've gotten great respect from them, potential NBA guys, and that's great. The twins are fantastic and they're going to keep getting better. All those guys. (James) Young, (Julius) Randle. Dakari (Johnson), I've known him since he was little and I'm excited for what he's becoming, and you have to love that. And for us, we have guys returning, a great freshman in Terry Rozier, and I can't wait to see him explode next year. . . . If my career had to end, I'm okay with it ending to Kentucky. Those boys play hard. They deserve everything that's coming to them. I respect everything about their program and their coaching staff. For me, I just want people to remember me as a great competitor, a great sportsman, someone who respects the game a lot, and whatever it is, I just want it to be a positive legacy."
Smith finished his career as the leading NCAA Tournament scorer in Louisville history, passing Milt Wagner in his final game.
Tim Henderson sat in front of his locker, visibly upset. He did not see the court in his final college game, never got the chance to reprise his two big three pointers against Wichita State. His family still calls him "Wichita." Probably always will.
Montrezl Harrell buried his head in his arms several times.
"We lost the chance to go to the Elite Eight and another Final Four," he said. "My feelings are hurt. We have a lot of good guys on this team that are seniors and this is their last time putting on this uniform. I'm hurt. I'm hurting for them. . . . The tough part for me was that I fouled out. I wasn't there to finish out the game for them, to grab big rebounds. For me, that was a tough part."
Harrell said he would start looking at his professional options in the next couple of weeks, "but not right now."
It was a sour finishing note. Veteran teams with a seven-point lead with 4:33 to play aren't supposed to lose. The Cardinals did not execute offensively down the stretch, and UK played outstanding defense to make that happen.
It ended a run of perfect Sweet 16s for Rick Pitino. He's now 11-1. But it ends more than that.
Next year, U of L will start out with a new cast of characters, in a new conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference. It will begin new rivalries, make new trips and reunite with some old rivals.
But the heart and soul of this program, Smith, Hancock, Siva, Dieng, their era officially has passed. It will be up to others to start new.
Chris Jones sat in a corner of the locker room. It's been barely a month since his stepbrother was gunned down in Memphis on the day that Louisville was playing a game in FedEx Forum.
"It's a lot of emotion right now," Jones said. "It's going to take me a few days to heal and get over this. It's been a hard stretch for me."
Freshman Terry Rozier said that getting the program back to where it was a year ago will be his mission.
"These guys are handing it off to us, and my goal is to get it back where they got it," Rozier said. "It's been a great run for this program. I can't believe it's over. People look at it like he's a freshman so he really doesn't care. It's all starting to come to me."
There will be new stories to tell, but the chapter is ending for some of the most beloved players in the program's history. It was a premature end, but a historic run.