CRAWFORD | Louisville NCAA Rewind, Sweet 16: Dieng leads Cards past No. 1 seed Michigan State
In the third story of a series, with the University of Louisville having banned itself from the postseason this year, WDRB's Eric Crawford looks back, round-by-round, at some of the Cardinals' more memorable tournament wins.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — There have been a lot of big wins in the Sweet 16 for the University of Louisville. I’m going to write about the one in 2012 because it’s the one I remember best.
Gorgui Dieng, then a sophomore center, tied Pervis Ellison’s single-game record with seven blocks in a 57-44 win over No. 1-seeded Michigan State in the US Airways Center in Phoenix.
I was there to cover the game for The Courier-Journal with C.L. Brown. If you’ll remember, that was the season that ended with a Senior Night loss to South Florida in the KFC Yum! Center, and nobody expected much from the postseason.
I’ve told the story before, I went to the Big East Tournament in New York with just a couple of days’ worth of clothes and no hotel room reserved long enough to cover a conference championship.
Of course, they won it.
Unlike the sportswriter who didn’t pack enough, Pitino had equipment manager Vinny Tatum and his assistants pack two rounds worth of equipment and supplies when the Cardinals took off as the No. 4 seed in the NCAA’s West Region.
The Cardinals went to Portland, where they beat No. 13 seed Davidson by seven points, and No. 5 seed New Mexico by five.
They didn’t come home. The team went straight to Phoenix, hung out at the NCAA-appointed resort hotel more than 30 minutes outside the city, sat by the pool, practiced, and waited for a matchup with No. 1-ranked Michigan State.
The Spartans were Big Ten Conference champions, and were led by Draymond Green. They had a heralded freshman in Branden Dawson. Guard Keith Appling was third-team Big Ten that season, and coach Tom Izzo was Big Ten coach of the year.
Louisville finished the regular season 22-9 after dropping four of its final six games. Its Ken Pomeroy rating was No. 30 heading into the Big East Tournament. It hasn’t been that low since.
The game figured to be low scoring. Louisville would become (spoiler alert) the worst-shooting three-point team ever to reach the Final Four. Michigan State was known for tough, hard-nosed defense.
The only difference between the teams was the difference in the game: Gorgui Dieng.
His shot blocking frustrated the Spartans. What he didn’t block, he altered.
Louisville missed 12 of its first 13 shots. But it got going with the last thing anyone expected — three-point shooting. Russ Smith made a pair. Jared Swopshire made one. Chris Smith hit a three. And even Dieng — 0 for 2 in his career prior to that — got one to fall. A second three from the corner gave Louisville a 23-18 halftime lead; 21 of those points came on seven three-pointers. Swopshire, who had been 3-for-20 from outside the arc all year, made two in the first half.
On defense, the Cardinals were sharp. Blitzing the pick-and-rolls on top, Louisville coach Rick Pitino left it to Dieng to protect the rim. And he did.
“He was very disruptive,” Green said after the game. “We’re never going to back down from anyone. We took it at him. He pulled off some great blocked shots. That’s what he does. That’s his strength.”
Louisville knew Michigan State would be pushing out on the three-point shooters to open the second half, so Pitino had the Cardinals go inside to open the second, and got two layps and a dunk to show for it. The Cardinals were up 35-25. And Michigan State couldn’t get past Dieng at the rim.
And Louisville answered with some inside power of its own on offense. Chane Behanan, scoreless in the first half, scored all 15 of his points in the second.
“Gorgui was brilliant and Chane was brilliant,” Pitino said. “They were absolute warriors. I’m so proud of all these guys.”
Said Izzo: “We ran out of gas a little bit emotionally, physically and mentally,” Izzo said. “And Louisville had the gas.”
You can read the lead to my game story from The Courier-Journal the next morning by clicking the image to the right.
But what I remember most about that game isn’t what happened on the court, but what happened after the game.
I went looking around for Pitino after all the news conferences were over, and I found him in the locker room, by himself. C.L. Brown and I stuck our head in and he said, “Come in, guys.”
He was sitting in a chair, in front of a large stone wall in the room, with a television above, watching Florida win the following Sweet 16 game from Phoenix.
Pitino shot us a little wink as we sat down and I thought, “He thinks he’s got this.”
He knew he was going to take this dysfunctional team to a Final Four. I posted video of that little interview, and I still have it somewhere. But who knows where?
Anyway, after it was all over and the team was headed home from Phoenix, I wrote this blog entry.
That Louisville team went on to lose to Kentucky’s national title team in the Final Four.
A year later, Dieng, Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and the rest led the Cardinals to the NCAA championship.
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved. Some information from this story was gathered via The Courier-Journal archive. If you're into the history of the city and its institutions, an archive subscription is worth the price. See details here.