LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—It took Maria Palacios four years to travel from Medellin, Colombia to see her son Juan play for Louisville.
Coach Rick Pitino might want to consider having her stick around awhile.
Palacios scored 13 points in his final game at Freedom Hall, and the 13th-ranked Cardinals set up a showdown with No. 11 Georgetown for the Big East title next weekend with a 68-54 win over Villanova on Sunday.
“It’s a dream to have her here, she still doesn’t believe she’s here,” Palacios said. “She looked at me and said ‘This is unbelievable. I’ve never seen so many people up and cheering for you.’ I told her to keep it together.”
Palacios kept it together long enough in 21 inspired minutes to help the Cardinals (24-6, 14-3 Big East) win their ninth straight and remain tied with the Hoyas for first-place in the Big East. The two teams meet in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Louisville beat the Hoyas 59-51 on Feb. 9.
“You go through so many ups and downs, (but) we’re still striving for a championship,” Palacios said.
Palacios hardly did it by himself. Jerry Smith added 10 points and 10 rebounds and the Cardinals showcased their depth by wearing down the Wildcats (17-11, 7-9). Senior center David Padgett had six points, four rebounds and three assists for Louisville and Earl Clark, who asked coach Rick Pitino to give his starting spot to Palacios for the game, had eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
“A loss on Senior Night wouldn’t have been good,” Padgett said. “That’s not the way it should be. Now we have to keep it going just one more game. It’s going to be fun.”
It’s the kind of scenario that seemed far-fetched following a 61-59 loss at Connecticut on Jan. 28. Facing a daunting stretch that included games against the Hoyas, Marquette, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, having a chance at a league title seemed like a longshot for the Cardinals.
Yet Pitino credited his Louisville’s surge to a single-mindedness embraced by Padgett and Palacios that carried over to the rest of the team. Rather than worry about their long-term prospects, the Cardinals focused on the next opponent. Nine wins later, they’re where they thought they’d be all along.
“I am absolutely delighted with where we are right now,” Pitino said. “We’ve withstood not only the injuries, but a lot of circumstances.”
Malcolm Grant led Villanova with 11 points and Dante Cunningham added 10, but the Wildcats shot just 40 percent from the field and turned the ball over 14 times in losing their second straight, damaging their hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds didn’t start for the first time this season after being late to the team bus for a morning shootaround with teammate Corey Fisher. Reynolds entered when the game was five minutes old, while Fisher didn’t get on the floor until just before halftime.
Reynolds tied a season-low with four points on just 1-of-6 shooting and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. Fisher went scoreless, missing his only shot from the floor.
Villanova coach Jay Wright called the benchings “no big deal,” and said Louisville’s deep bench and his team’s inability to stay out of foul trouble had more to do with the loss.
“We got Dante and Dwayne (Anderson) in foul trouble early,” Wright said. “We don’t have the depth yet to handle that against a very good team.”
A 17-3 run midway through the first half gave Louisville a 35-24 at the break, and the Cardinals’ defense made sure the Wildcats didn’t get back in the game. Villanova didn’t get within single digits over the game’s final 17 minutes, as Louisville used its drastic size advantage to push the Wildcats around. Louisville outrebounded Villanova 38-29 and turned 12 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points.
“They’re as good as anybody in our league, they’re really playing great,” Wright said. “We played an outstanding team that was focused.”
The sluggish game was in stark contrast to Louisville’s 90-85 win over No. 17 Notre Dame on Thursday. The teams combined for 41 fouls and 29 turnovers, yet the Cardinals were never in any real danger during the game’s last 25 minutes because of what Pitino said is his team’s ability to adapt, something he thinks will pay off down the road.
“I think we can play any style, which is very important,” Pitino said. “We can play slow, we can play fast. We can play man. We can play zone. We can attack zones. We can attack man.”