NEW YORK — It certainly won't get them any style points, but Louisville's 50-44 win over Cincinnati in Saturday night's Big East Tournament final is a sign the Cardinals may be peaking at just the right time.
Despite battling injuries and inconsistent form on its way to a 12-6 conference record, Rick Pitino's team defeated four likely NCAA tournament teams in New York to secure its own bid for the sixth straight season. An enthusiastic Pitino, perhaps in a New York frame of mind, drew a parallel after Saturday night's championship game between his team's surge and the late run made by the New York Giants that propelled them through the playoffs and to a dramatic Super Bowl win.
"I used the analogy of the Giants. I said 'Do you think the New York fans can remember who the Giants lost to?" Pitino said. "All they remember is beating the Packers and moving on. That's the worst thing about [the] culture: the gratification is so short, and the way they handle failure is so short that it's one game removed."
There hadn't been many recent signs Louisville was capable of this run during an injury-plagued season in which only three players have participated in all of the Cardinals' games. Even after getting talented freshman Wayne Blackshear back from shoulder surgery in February, the Cardinals still lost three of their final four regular season games with the only win coming against a very average Pittsburgh team.
Then came the trip to New York and suddenly Peyton Siva began to play with more consistency again and Louisville became more effective executing Pitino's full-court match-up press defense.
In three of the Cardinals' four wins, the opposition scored less than 51 points. On Saturday night, Cincinnati was pressed into just 14 first half points and shot 21.4 percent from three-point range, a testament to Louisville's aggressive defensive.
This was something that wasn't possible during most of the season.
"If I would have run and press and go crazy ‑ all I would do in the last ten minutes of the game is tire our own team," Pitino said of how his team was forced to play for much of this season. "So we had to get to this point where everybody got healthy. We've got three guys wearing helmets in practice."
Like UConn last year, who as the No. 9 seed won the Big East Tournament and carried that form through the brackets for the national championship, Louisville appears to be playing their best basketball when it matters the most. That doesn't mean the Cardinals will be a national championship contender like the Huskies, but beating the likes of Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati is still an encouraging sign.
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- Rick Pitino