Louisville, led by guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, ran the Irish ragged en route to a 69-57 Big East Tournament semifinal win. Smith's 20 points brought his two-day point total to a staggering 48 as part of what's already been an extremely emotional weekend for the Brooklyn kid whose high school coach and mentor, Jack Curran, passed away on Wednesday night.
That was coupled with Siva doing what Siva does so well, furiously flying all over the court – and sometimes off the court and into the scoring tables – while collecting 12 points, 7 steals and 6 assists. The thefts tied the tournament single-game record. The last to do it? Louisville's Terrence Williams in the 2009 final against Syracuse, oddly enough. Now Siva and the current Cardinals get their shot at the Orange – who beat Georgetown 58-55 in overtime – Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said Siva's energy was the difference on a night when Notre Dame put his team in some tough spots. The Cardinals leaned hard on their star guard, something they wind up doing often.
"That's how much of an ass I am."
In Pitino's defense, it works and is probably necessary in games like this. Notre Dame was the longest shot of the four teams in the semifinals to move on to the championship game, but didn't play like a group that was short on credentials. Pat Connaughton kept hitting three-point shots (he finished one short of Gerry McNamara's tournament record of 16) while Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley each chipped in 14 points. The underdogs' steely resolve paid dividends early and kept them within one or two shots of the Cardinals through most of the first half. That changed in the final moments when a Smith layup and a big three-pointer from Luke Hancock pushed the lead to 32-25 at the break.
It created a window just big enough to keep pulling away, but never easily.
"Notre Dame is a great team," Siva said. "Led by two great guards…probably the most underrated backcourt in the nation. It was definitely tough playing against them. They match up so well against us."
That showed in the blow-for-blow style of play. For every punch the Irish threw, the Cardinals had one ready to come screaming right back as a counter. Notre Dame was able to match the big shots Louisville hit, but couldn't come close to matching the transition baskets and tempo the two Cardinals guards pushed and sometimes forcefully created with the steals.
The closest the Irish came in the second half was three points, and that was with 13:20 still left in the game. It never got embarrassing, but it also never got any better. Which is sort of what Brey said he expected leading up to the game: either overtime or a Louisville romp, since that's how the duels between the two teams have gone the last few seasons.
Louisville advances to the Big East final for the third straight year and the fourth time overall, and earned itself the right to defend its 2012 title. It's an impressive run for the Cardinals, who have won six straight in the conference tournament, which is the fifth-longest such winning streak in Big East history.
If they extend that streak, it's safe to say it will start and end with their two guards.
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