PHOENIX — Hated to do that to ya, kid.
Rick Pitino nearly came unhinged and his point guard watched the end of the game from the bench. When it was over, though, it was Pitino and Louisville making plans for the Final Four and his protege, Billy Donovan, and the Florida Gators wondering what the heck happened.
Freshman forward Chane Behanan made the go-ahead basket with 1:06 left Saturday and the fourth-seeded Cardinals finished the game on a 23-8 run for a 72-68 victory over Donovan’s stunned Florida team in the West Regional final.
Russ Smith, who finished with 19 points, followed Behanan’s bucket with a pair of free throws and then Florida freshman Bradley Beal and teammate Kenny Boynton each missed chances to tie in the final seconds.
Louisville made one more free throw to seal the game and reach its ninth Final Four, the second under Pitino, despite playing the final 3:58 without point guard Peyton Siva, who fouled out.
“What happens is, you can’t lose confidence,” Pitino said. “I kept telling the guys, ‘We’re going to the Final Four. Win the Big East tournament, you’re going to the Final Four,’ and they did.”
The Big East tournament champions are now going for the NCAA title, too. They’re on an eight-game winning streak, with a trip to New Orleans on the itinerary and a possible matchup with Pitino’s old school, Kentucky, which will have to get by Baylor on Sunday to set up a grudge match to end them all.
This game had a much more warm-and-fuzzy story line: Pitino, the young coach who saw something special in Donovan, the undersized guard, and developed a partnership that took Providence on an unexpected trip to the 1987 Final Four. Pitino also gave Donovan his first coaching job and both men conceded theirs was more of a father-son relationship than anything else.
“I’m so proud of Billy Donovan, the way he coached this team,” Pitino said. “He was brilliant. He took us out of the zone. But only one team could play aggressive and come back like this.”
Seventh-seeded Florida (26-11) went out in the regional final for the second straight year, with Donovan falling to 0-7 lifetime against the man who hired him as an assistant at Kentucky and felt as proud as a papa when he watched Donovan win his two national titles in 2006 and 2007.
But make no mistake. This was no heartwarmer.
Donovan got under Pitino’s skin early in the second half during a timeout when he worked over the officials, who promptly called a foul against the Cardinals (30-9) when play resumed.
“He called that,” Pitino shouted. “Why don’t you just give him a whistle?”
Pitino couldn’t get a break for a while after that and when Siva picked up his fourth foul, the coach stomped onto the court and got hit with a technical. Erving Walker made four straight free throws and the Gators led by 11, setting the stage for what could’ve been Donovan’s fourth trip to the Final Four.
But the team that went 8 for 11 from 3-point range in the first half went cold — really cold — not hitting any of nine attempts from beyond the arc in the second.
The Gators missed seven shots and committed one turnover over the last 2:30. They didn’t score after Boynton’s layup gave them a 68-66 lead with 2:39 left.
The game’s best freshman? That was Behanan, who was far less heralded than Beal coming out of high school, but outplayed him down the stretch when the trip to New Orleans was on the line.
The freshman from Cincinnati scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, including nine over the last 8:02 and Louisville’s last two field goals — both after Siva had fouled out with nine points and eight assists.
Beal, meanwhile, matched Erik Murphy with a team-high 14 points and controlled this game for the first 37 minutes.
But over the last 3, he tried twice to take the ball to the hoop, only to get denied by 6-foot-10 center Gorgui Dieng. Beal missed the desperation 3 in the waning seconds and also got called for traveling after stealing a wild pass from Smith while Louisville was nursing a one-point lead with 18 seconds left.
In the first half, Donovan looked like the better coach, though anyone would look good when his team is shooting that way. The Gators went 8 for 11 from 3, 6 for 10 from inside the arc and constantly harassed Louisville en route to a 41-33 lead.
But Pitino didn’t become the first coach to take three programs to the Final Four for nothing. He scrapped the zone defense, had his players get up in the face of Florida’s players and it worked — though the Cardinals paid the price in foul trouble.
Behanan and Kyle Kuric each finished the game with four fouls. When Siva got his fourth and Pitino got his ‘T,’ the coach tried to settle things down, stepping up to Siva and saying, “It was a foul. Stop saying it wasn’t.”
Whether he believed it or not, who knows?
As for whether he thought a comeback was possible, especially playing the final 4 minutes without Siva on the floor? Well, Pitino did say in the lead-up to this game that the 1987 trip to the Final Four made him believe anything’s possible.
This is his first trip back since 2005.
At Phoenix, Ariz.
Boynton 4-11 2-4 12, Young 5-7 1-2 11, Walker 3-10 4-6 12, Beal 6-12 0-0 14, Murphy 4-5 4-4 14, Rosario 1-1 1-1 3, Wilbekin 1-1 0-0 2, Prather 0-1 0-1 0. Totals 24-48 12-18 68.
Siva 3-7 2-2 9, C. Smith 3-4 1-2 8, Dieng 4-11 0-0 8, Kuric 3-9 0-0 8, Behanan 7-10 2-2 17, R. Smith 6-13 6-7 19, Price 0-0 0-0 0, Swopshire 1-3 0-0 2, Justice 0-1 0-0 0, Ware 0-1 0-0 0, Blackshear 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 27-60 12-15 72.
Halftime — Florida 41-33. Three-point goals — Florida 8-20 (Murphy 2-2, Beal 2-5, Walker 2-6, Boynton 2-7), Louisville 6-16 (Kuric 2-8, Siva 1-1, Behanan 1-1, R. Smith 1-2, C. Smith 1-2, Ware 0-1, Swopshire 0-1). Fouled out — Siva. Rebounds — Florida 32 (Murphy 8), Louisville 30 (Behanan 7). Assists — Florida 17 (Walker 7), Louisville 11 (Siva 8). Total fouls — Florida 15, Louisville 20. Technical — Louisville Bench. A — 13,456.