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Notre Dame-Louisville Preview

AP - Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- - Rick Pitino calls Saturday's game against Notre Dame the most important home contest of his coaching tenure at Louisville.

The coach said he feels that way because the season finale against the No. 24 Irish (23-7, 11-6 Big East) is a rematch of the Cardinals' 104-101, five-overtime thrilling loss to Notre Dame last month. A win would give No. 8 Louisville (25-5, 13-4) at least a share of the Big East title and a successful home sendoff for senior point guard Peyton Siva and junior center Gorgui Dieng - a duo Pitino said is "as special as any two players I've ever coached."

"All Senior Days are special but these two young men, they epitomize what you would want in a student athlete in all regards," Pitino said.

Louisville is 100-38 the past four seasons and reached the Final Four last year. But when Pitino speaks of Siva and Dieng, it's not the game-day accolades he thinks of first.

The pair steps onto the practice court every day with the same enthusiasm they had on their first days on campus, Pitino said. He praised their "naive innocence" about life.

"In today's world of egotistical, selfish athletes that come along, here you have the polar opposites," Pitino said. "They're just unique for this day and age where ego is very much part of the culture."

Siva is just the school's second player ever to earn Academic All-America honors (second team). Dieng, who came to the U.S. from Senegal knowing little English besides "Hello," speaks five languages.

Pitino thinks so highly of both that he named thoroughbreds after them.

Siva has started every game the past three seasons, is second all-time in assists (626) and sits just five steals (225) behind Louisville career leader Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith.

Dieng set the single-season school record for blocks (128) last year and is averaging nearly 10 points and 10 rebounds this year.

Siva - the Seattle native who was named last year's Big East tournament MVP and preseason player of the year for 2012-13 - said the Louisville faithful "really took me in like I was one of their own."

Saturday's pregame ceremony will be emotional, but he'll try to keep his in check, considering a win would give the Cardinals a share of the school's second regular-season Big East title since joining the league in 2005-06.

"For us, this is a very big game because it's a chance to win the Big East regular-season title or to share it," Siva said. "It's a chance for higher seeding in the (NCAA) tournament and higher seeding in New York.

"After the game, then the tears and everything can come out."

Dieng said his ultimate career goal is not just making the NBA but staying in the league 10-15 years. First, he is focused on fulfilling some collegiate dreams.

"I have a lot of goals that I have to reach before we talk about NBA," said Dieng, who will not hire an agent and could return if he's not projected as a first-round selection.

"I really want to win the Big East. I really want to win the Big East tournament. I already went to a Final Four; I want to win a national championship. We just need to take it step by step."

Louisville's first step comes against one of its peskiest rivals. Irish guard Jerian Grant scored 12 points in the final 45 seconds of regulation to erase an eight-point deficit and bring the first of five overtimes Feb. 9.

"They have the ability to make tough shots," Pitino said. "Here we were, playing great defense - everything was going along and they weren't shooting particularly well - and then all of a sudden they're making shots that they can pull out of nowhere."

The 3-hour, 38-minute marathon was the Big East's longest regular-season game. Six of the last eight matchups between Louisville and Notre Dame have needed extra time.

Two have gone to double overtime, including the Irish's 67-65 win during their last visit Jan. 7, 2012. The two schools have split those six games.

"The bizarre overtime games and matches that we've had with Notre Dame are really, really incredible when you think about it," Pitino said. "It makes no sense at all."

The Irish enter this meeting with three wins in four games, including 66-40 at home over St. John's on Tuesday.

Grant had 21 points and eight assists, Eric Atkins added 15 points and seven assists, and the two had just one turnover apiece. Notre Dame shot 68 percent in the second half, outscoring the Red Storm 44-14.

Following the win, Atkins immediately turned his attention to Louisville.

"I think we are very confident. I think this nucleus went in there last year and got a great win. I think this year it is going to be an even bigger game because of what happened here," he said. "It is their Senior Day. It is going to be a crazy game. We will have to be poised, and we will have to make them play at our pace. That is always our key to victory against Louisville."

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