Another NCAA Tournament, another Big East Cinderella.
Fourth-seeded Louisville picked where Connecticut left off last season, eliminating top-seeded Michigan State 57-44 Thursday in an NCAA West Regional semifinal at US Airways Center.
Cool point guard Peyton Siva, dominating 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng and a squelching defense led the Cardinals into the Elite Eight. Louisville (29-9) will play seventh-seeded Florida (26-10) in Saturday's regional final. The Gators beat third-seeded Marquette 68-58 in Thursday's late game.
Siva, who had the ball in his hands on virtually possession in the final 10 minutes, scored only four points but had nine assists and controlled the tempo of the game. Chane Behanan led the Cardinals with 15 points, and Dieng had nine rebounds, a career-high seven blocked shots and his first career 3-pointer.
"We knew we were coming to a war," said Dieng, a sophomore from Senegal. "We had to be tougher than them to win the game."
With Dieng controlling the interior of a 2-3 zone defense, Michigan State (29-8) made only 14 field goals and shot 28.6 percent from the field. The Spartans made a tournament-high 57 percent of their field-goal attempts in their first two games.
"We felt if we could keep Gorgui in the game, we could beat them," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "We knew this was going to be low-scoring. Defense doesn't take a break. It's the offense that does."
The Cardinals have followed the UConn model through three rounds of the NCAA Tournament after winning four games in four days to capture the Big East tournament two weeks ago. UConn, eliminated in the NCAA's first round this season, won the 2011 NCAA Tournament after running off five victories to win the Big East tournament as an underdog.
The Cardinals have given up 62, 56 and 44 points in their three games while limiting opponents to 34.7 percent shooting from the floor. They have kept 11 of their past 19 opponents from shooting 40 percent.
Pitino expects a lot from Smith
Russ Smith had a typical Russ Smith game in the second round against New Mexico. He finished with 17 points in his 23 minutes off the bench, but also helped keep the game close with some questionable decision-making down the stretch.
"It was a movie a long time ago, I think won an Academy Award, you were too young for it, but it was called 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' And coaching this young man is going to make me be a star of remake of that movie," coach Rick Pitino joked after the game. "When you coach Russ Smith you have a nervous breakdown on every possession. But he always comes up big for us. When we struggle for points he's always there."
Smith contributed 11 points, three rebounds and three assists in the regional semifinal against Michigan State.
Louisville held Michigan State to 5-of-21 shooting from 3-point range, a 23.8 percent rate. That actually was the best anyone has shot from long range against the Cardinals in the postseason. Its other six opponents in the Big East and NCAA tournaments have shot 12 to 21 percent.
Pitino Loves the College Game
"You see Duke lose to Lehigh,” Pitino said. “You see Missouri lose to Norfolk State. I've seen some upsets in my time, but I don't quite believe it, because you've got one team that has the greatest coach in the modern era. He's the John Wooden of this generation. And they lose, so anybody can lose. You have the greatest coach in our game with terrific basketball players, and Lehigh is in the Patriot league, and Norfolk State beats one of the most highly potent offenses in the game. That's what makes March Madness so unbelievable. You don't find that in the NBA."
For a team without a player on any of the top three All-Big East teams, Louisville has a surprising number of players for opposing defenses to worry about. Peyton Siva is the key player, as he makes the team go at the point and the Cardinals struggle when he's off his game. Kyle Kuric can't be left open but can rarely create his own shot. Both Russ Smith and Chris Smith are streaky shooters who can get hot in an instant or shoot the team into a scoring lull. What's not inconsistent is the Cardinals defense, which has shut down every opponent this postseason from beyond the arc and has been able to get opposing offenses to play uncomfortably fast because of its defensive pressure.
Rick Pitino has had a love-hate relationship with freshman Wayne Blackshear this season, but it sounds like he might be getting some more playing time in the upcoming round. "I'm getting more and more confidence in Wayne Blackshear. I think he's going to go from eight minutes to 12, 15 minutes, and I think that's going to give us a big lift," Pitino said.
REGULAR SEASON QUICK REVIEW
2011-12 wasn't the most consistent regular season for the Cardinals, in part because of the sheer number of injuries the team had to fight through. It was strong in nonconference play, but then lost its Big East opener at home to Georgetown and followed that with a close loss to Kentucky. Once it got healthy in March, however, the Cardinals were a totally different team, which it proved by winning the Big East tournament as a No. 7 seed playing four games in as many days.
Senior F Kyle Kuric's streak of double-figure scoring games ended at six when he had seven points in the win over Michigan State. Kuric hit just three of eight shots, including one of five from 3-point range.
Freshman F Chane Behanan scored 15 points in the regional semifinal against the Spartans, and he added nine rebounds. It was his highest point total since he scored 16 against Syracuse on Feb. 13.
Junior PG Peyton Siva had a lot of fans at the games last weekend, as Portland was close enough to his Seattle hometown that friends and family were able to make the trip. He had 17 points and six assists before fouling out against Davidson, and added six points and five assists in the victory over New Mexico.