ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Undoubtedly, Louisville would rather play another game than be a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Francisco Garcia (search) went on a shooting tear Thursday night to keep the Cardinals moving on, leading Rick Pitino and underrated, fourth-seeded Louisville to a 93-79 victory over top-seeded Washington in the Albuquerque Regional semifinals.
This was billed as a matchup between Washington (29-5), the team trying to prove it really did deserve a top seed, and Louisville (32-4), the team that couldn't believe it was only a No. 4.
Garcia finished with 23 points — including three 3-pointers during a 14-0 run in the second half — to help the Cardinals end the debate and move on to Saturday's regional final against either Bobby Knight (search) and Texas Tech or West Virginia.
Meanwhile, Washington's top two scorers, Nate Robinson (search) and Tre Simmons, languished on the bench with three fouls for a big chunk of the first half. Robinson picked up his third at the 8:51 mark and Simmons picked up his third with 3:50 left, which is exactly when Garcia started the run that put Louisville ahead 45-32.
The teams traded buckets through much of the second half, and things got chippy when Louisville's Larry O'Bannon (18 points) went down in a heap with Jamaal Williams and Bobby Jones of Washington. O'Bannon appeared to tap Williams with his foot while Williams was down and the Huskies got angry.
Robinson responded with a steal and dunk — his only field goal of the night — and Hakeen Rollins made back-to-back baskets to pull Washington within 67-61.
But less than two minutes later, Garcia hit his fifth 3-pointer to make it 76-65 and the Cardinals never let the lead fall below double digits.
Taquan Dean made five 3-pointers to finish with 19 points for the Cardinals. Ellis Myles had eight points and 13 boards to help Louisville finish with an 11-rebound advantage in the battle between two teams, neither known much for their inside presence.
Robinson finished with eight points — 0-for-5 from 3-point range — and Simmons went 3-for-6 for 10 points.
The guards, each averaging more than 16 points this season, struggled mightily in the second half, unable to shake the effects of sitting on the bench for such a long time earlier. Williams, who averaged nine points this season, finished with 18, Brandon Roy had 15 and Will Conroy had 14 points and eight assists to keep the Huskies within reach.
But neutralizing the Huskies guards was the key, and Pitino deserves a tip of the hat for that. The veteran coach with 448 career wins and four trips to the Final Four mercilessly worked the officials over the first 9 1/2 minutes, while the Cardinals were picking up six fouls.
Louisville only committed two more the rest of the half while both Simmons and Robinson — neither of them normally foul prone — found themselves on the bench.
Thus ended a remarkably nice run for the Huskies, who won the Pac-10 tournament and surprised everyone but themselves when they picked up their top seeding. This was their first trip to the regional semifinals since 1998, but the Huskies will have to wait to make the Final Four; they haven't been there since 1953.
Pitino and the Cardinals, meanwhile, are regulars.
Louisville is seeking its eighth trip to the Final Four and its first since 1986, when coach Denny Crum and Pervis Ellison led the Cards to the national title. Pitino was last there in 1997, when he coached Kentucky.
His return to the Wildcats' archrival in 2001 caused an uproar around the state, but nobody can argue with the results — he turned this team into a winner in his first season.