West Virginia couldn't miss. Louisville wouldn't quit. In the end, it was hobbling Taquan Dean, tenacious Larry O'Bannon and the Cardinals who wound up with a ticket to the Final Four (search), rallying from 20 points down for a scintillating 93-85 overtime win Saturday in the Albuquerque Regional final.
After watching the seventh-seeded Mountaineers (search) go on an unbelievable shooting skein through most of the first 35 minutes, Rick Pitino did one of the best jobs of his storied career, coaxing out the win and making history by becoming the first coach to take three programs to the national semis.
Pitino took Providence (search) once, Kentucky three times and now Louisville, although he'd be the first to admit this one wasn't all about coaching.
The fourth-seeded Cardinals (33-4) had every reason to pack it in during the first half, when the Mountaineers (24-11) made 10 3-pointers in staking their 38-18 lead, the hoop looking as wide as the Shenandoah River back home.
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Louisville pulled within arm's distance many times in the second half, but on every occasion, it would be Johannes Herber or Kevin Pittsnogle making a 3 to keep the Mountaineers ahead.
Not until O'Bannon, who finished with 24 points, slithered through the defense and made a layup with 38 seconds left did Louisville tie it at 77 — the first tie since 3-all. And not until the overtime began did West Virginia finally start missing.
Led by a 3-pointer from Dean, who made seven and finished with 23 points, and four free throws by O'Bannon, the Cardinals opened it up in overtime.
When the buzzer sounded, Pitino started hugging players, and O'Bannon chucked the ball toward the ceiling at The Pit, which hosted a game almost as exciting as the 1983 final when Jim Valvano and North Carolina State won their improbable championship.
Louisville made its eighth Final Four despite playing the final 4:02 of regulation and overtime without arguably its best player, Francisco Garcia, who couldn't avoid the fouls as the Cardinals started trapping, pressing, doing whatever they could to disrupt the torrid Mountaineers.
And what a display West Virginia put on.
It wasn't just that John Beilein's team made 11 of its first 16 field-goal attempts, or that it shot 10-for-14 from 3-point range in the first half or that it made a total of 18 from long range, second to only the 1990 Loyola Marymount team in the history of the tournament.
It was also the way some of the shots fell.
Beilein's son, Patrick, banked one in from an awkward angle in front of the Louisville bench. He made another from the `B' in the New Mexico "Lobos" logo set about 30 feet from the basket.
With Louisville rallying in the second half, Pittsnogle (six 3-pointers, 25 points) threw one up, got lucky when it hit the front of the rim hard enough to bounce high, then pumped his fist as he watched the ball spin through the hoop.
The Cardinals never would have thought they'd have to defend those kind of shots, and Pitino spent much of the first half in an unfamiliar pose — sitting on the bench, watching shot after shot fall and hoping that when the wave ended, his team would still have a chance.
Turns out, the Cardinals did.
Dean made three 3-pointers during a 24-14 stretch to open the second half and help pull Louisville to 54-51.
The teams traded baskets — often one 3-pointer for another — until Louisville's Otis George made a 17-footer to pull the Cards within 74-73.
West Virginia answered with — guess what? — a 3-pointer from Pittsnogle for a 77-73 lead, but Luis Palacios made a bucket to pull within two and O'Bannon, the regional's most valuable player, made his layup to tie.
Both teams had chances to win in regulation. J.D. Collins had his 10-foot jumper swatted by Brandon Jenkins, then in transition, Dean got a good look with about 3 seconds left, but the shot rimmed off.
Once Louisville's domination of overtime was complete, the stats didn't seem so lopsided. Sure, the Mountaineers made more 3s — 18-11 — but the overall field-goal shooting was 55.3 percent for West Virginia to 55.2 to Louisville — percentages that almost always guarantee victory in modern-day hoops.
Only one team could win, though, and the Mountaineers had to have been devastated, coming so close to their first trip to the Final Four since 1959, back in the days of Jerry West.
Instead, Louisville — a team with a much more impressive history — is going. The Cardinals made it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1986, when Denny Crum and Pervis Ellison led them to their second national title.