Published March 24, 2012
PHOENIX – Florida coach Billy Donovan appeared to be on his way to finally beating his mentor. Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals sent him home with one of his most disappointing losses.
The Gators blew an 11-point lead in the second half and took some questionable shots down the stretch, blowing a chance at another Final Four with a 72-68 loss to Louisville on Saturday in the West Regional final.
Donovan hadn't beaten Pitino in six previous tries, but appeared to be headed toward a breakthrough win after the Gators hit eight 3-pointers and shot 72 percent in the first half against one of the nation's best defenses.
Florida (26-11) missed all nine of its 3-point shots in the second half, yet still managed to lead 58-47 with just under 11 minutes left. The Gators couldn't hold off the charging Cardinals (30-9), though, allowing them to go on a 10-0 run and to hit all the big shots late.
Florida had seven missed shots and a turnover in the final 2:39, leaving Donovan with the most disappointing of his seven losses to his former boss. Bradley Beal and Erik Murphy had 14 points each, and Kenny Boynton and Irving Walker added 12 apiece.
Donovan has a tight relationship with Pitino that goes back 25 years, when the fire-at-will guard led Providence and coach Pitino to an improbable run to the Final Four. Donovan reluctantly agreed when Pitino asked him to dress up as Billy the Kid for the team program — complete with cowboy hat and spurs — and became close to Pitino's son, Richard, who used to sit on his lap when he was barely out of diapers and is now the associate head coach under his father.
Rick Pitino also gave Donovan his first coaching job while he was at Kentucky.
Mentor and protege had met six times before and Pitino won all of those, though it had more to do with the talent level of the teams than anything Donovan was lacking as a coach.
Never before had they met with so much at stake and with so many emotions on the line.
Louisville reached the brink of a Final Four appearance by overcoming a late-season stumble to win four games in four days for the Big East tournament championship. The Cardinals opened the NCAA tournament with wins over Davidson and New Mexico, then grinded out a win over top-seeded Michigan State in the regional semifinals behind Gorgui Dieng's seven blocked shots.
Florida had a similar sputtering finish in the regular season and lost to Kentucky in the SEC tournament, then rolled over Virginia and Norfolk State in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Gators followed with an impressive win over Marquette in the regional semifinals after Beal displayed some of his NBA-worthy talents.
That set up what figured to be a sizzler in the desert, two like-mindedly up-tempo teams that love to play defense and jack up 3-pointers.
And it lived up to the billing.
Louisville had been good at defending the 3 all season, holding teams to 30 percent while ranking third nationally in overall defense at 37 percent. But the Cardinals had a hard time finding Florida's shooters in the first half, allowing the Gators to hit 8 of 11 3-point shots and shoot 14 of 21 overall.
Louisville tightened up on the perimeter to open the second half and the Gators had no answer, missing one 3-pointer after another.
Even without getting shots to drop from long range, Florida was able to push its lead to 58-49 after Pitino was called for a technical foul and Boynton hit four free throws.
But Louisville charged back, pulling within 65-64 with its 10-0 run. Even after point guard Peyton Siva fouled out with 3:58 left, the Cardinals kept coming at the Gators, who kept misfiring.
Boynton hit a layup with 2:39 left, but Beal had a shot blocked by Dieng, missed another under pressure and had a turnover with 18 seconds left with the Gators trailing by one. Russ Smith, who led Louisville with 19 points, hit two free throws at the other end to make it 71-68, then Beal and Boynton missed consecutive shots from 3-point range.
Louisville's Wayne Blackshear sealed it by hitting 1 of 2 free throws with 3 seconds left, sending the Gators and Donovan back to Tallahassee instead of the Big Easy.