PHOENIX – Once upon a time, Billy Donovan took Rick Pitino on an improbable ride to the Final Four.
Twenty-five years later, Pitino is heading back after another unbelievable run – one capped with an amazing late-game rally that left his old protégé wondering what the heck happened.
Freshman forward Chane Behanan made the go-ahead basket with 1:06 left Saturday and Pitino’s fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals outscored Florida by 15 points over the final 10 minutes for a 72-68 victory in the West Regional final.
And all Pitino could think afterward was, Hate to do that to ya, kid.
Tonight, it was very difficult because of the way the game ended, because they outplayed us for 32 minutes, Pitino said. And it really hurt inside. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching.
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.
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 coached him on that Final Four team at Providence in 1987, hired him as an assistant at Kentucky a few years later and felt as proud as a papa when he watched Donovan win his two national titles in 2006 and 2007.
I said this earlier, for myself, I don’t think any of us like losing, Donovan said. But if someone said to me, You have to lose a game, who would it be to?’ I would say him.
Louisville will take an eight-game winning streak on its trip New Orleans. Awaiting is a possible matchup with Pitino’s old school, Kentucky, which will have to get by Baylor today to set up a grudge match to end them all.
We think they’re excellent. We think they’re great. I coached there. It’s great. Great tradition, Pitino said. But we want to be Louisville. We have a different mission. They have a different mission. But we both want to get to a Final Four and win a championship.
This game had a much more warm-and-fuzzy story line than that possible Bluegrass State matchup – a meeting between two men who say theirs is more of a father-son relationship than anything else.
But make no mistake. This was no heart-warmer.
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 to the ref. 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 three-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 six shots and committed one turnover over the last 2:30. They finished with 14 turnovers to six for Louisville.