NEW YORK - Louisville got vengeance on Notre Dame for an overtime defeat in South Bend earlier this season, coming from 16 points in Madison Square Garden to force overtime where they eventually pulled out an 83-77 win.
With Selection Sunday just 24 hours away, the talk surrounding this game is going to center on Notre Dame. Did they cost themselves a No. 1 seed with this loss? Is this a team you can trust in the tournament? Is a Mike Brey-coached team headed for another early tournament exit?
All valid talking points.
Yet all miss the point.
The job that Rick Pitino has done with this Louisville team has been nothing short of extraordinary. He doesn’t have a roster full of future NBA draft picks. Of the guys he does have on his roster, seemingly every one of them has missed time this season due to injuries. Starting forward Rakeem Buckles is out for the year after tearing his acl, and Jared Swopshire hasn’t even suited up this season thanks to a potentially career-ending groin injury.
Yet here they are, the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament one win away from their second title in three years.
“It’s a fun group to coach,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “Not since 1987 have I had this much fun coaching a basketball team.”
“All they care about is winning.”
This win epitomized Louisville’s season. Simply put, the Cardinals were bad in the first half. Notre Dame got what they wanted when they wanted it in the first half. They scored 1.44 PPP, shot 56% from the floor, and headed into the locker room with a 46-32 halftime lead.
“In the second half,” Pitino said, “I said, ‘You’ve got one shot. You’ve got to take their legs out from them.’”
And they did, forcing turnovers and cutting into the Notre Dame lead using their patented pressure defense. But the problem with playing an aggressive defense is that a tight whistle can burn you, and it did just that to the Cardinals. Preston Knowles picked up his fourth foul with 13 minutes left, and Terrence Jennings did the same just a few minutes later. After a three cut the Notre Dame lead to 66-64 with 3:53 left, Peyton Siva fouled out.
It forced Preston Knowles to move over to the point.
And he responded, finishing with 20 points and a number of clutch buckets down the stretch while sliding over to run the point in Siva’s absence.
Knowles was also charged with guarding Hansbrough for 94 feet, which is no small task.
That’s tiring just typing it.
“I said, ‘Hey, look at me, look me in the eye,’” Pitino said. “And he said, ‘I can’t.’ He was that tired. Then we go back out and he dogged a guy the whole length of the court, never let up.”
What Rick Pitino has built is a group of kids that epitomizes the definition of team. They play hard, they play for each other, and they buy into what Pitino is selling them.
Its why they were able to overcome a 16 point deficit to knock off the Irish.
And its why they have been able to overcome injuries and a relative lack of individual talent to become a team that may end up earning a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Don’t expect that to change in the next month.