From the moment one year ago when Louisville lost in the national semifinals to bitter intrastate rival Kentucky and then had to watch the Wildcats celebrate a national title two days later, coach Rick Pitino set his sights on a return trip to the Final Four. One with a happier ending.
Pitino's Cardinals were named the top overall seed by the NCAA Selection Committee, and of all the teams designated No. 1 during this tumultuous season of upsets, Louisville responded best as the only top seed to reach the Final Four.
But waiting for them was Wichita State, a No. 9 seed that manufactured upsets of Pitt, Gonzaga and Ohio State along with a win over 13th-seeded La Salle. Pitino noted that the Shockers didn't just beat those teams but "pounded" them, and for the better part of 27 minutes, that's what happened to the Cardinals.
But even when they trailed by 12 with time leaking away in the second half, point guard Peyton Siva said, "Coach P just kept repeating, 'We're gonna win, we're gonna win.' We believed it and made a good run at the end."
Pitino's signature press went more than 26 minutes without forcing a Wichita State turnover, then caused a flurry of seven in the final 6:42 as the Cardinals came back to pull out a 72-68 victory. It put Pitino one win away from his second national title to go with the one he won at Kentucky in 1996.
The script could not be better for Pitino, who is expected to be confirmed tomorrow as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. But on this night, he chose to recognize the up-and-coming coach on the other bench, Gregg Marshall, for taking his team to the limit.
"I don't think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State," Pitino said. "This was a tough loss for Wichita State because they played great. We had to dig in. Four starters had their worst night of the season."
Pitino had to rely on his bench. In the aftermath of the tragic compound leg fracture suffered by reserve guard Kevin Ware in the Midwest Regional final, Pitino even called on walk-on Tim Henderson to pick up the slack. He hit back-to-back three-pointers that began the Cardinals' finishing 37-21 run.
"We had to win with Tim Henderson," Pitino marveled.
Of course, Louisville also won with a press that has been the subject of considerable discussion throughout Pitino's seventh Final Four appearance. The coach worried that the Shockers, despite their mid-major status, had the physical and mental makeup to stand up to the Cardinals' pressure.
"They're the best team we will have faced this year at the defensive end," Pitino said before the game. "They don't let you go into the paint without four guys attacking you. They are the toughest team to score against."
Those comments seemed prophetic when the Cardinals mustered only 25 first-half points. But the defensive system Pitino said he developed back at Boston University when he was out of the spotlight and was allowed to make mistakes didn't fail him when he needed it most.
Wichita guard Ron Baker, whose only turnover was a controversial held-ball call with 6.3 seconds left, didn't feel that was a turnover. On the other hand, he couldn't deny the effect of Louisville's pressure.
"You get used to it, and then, they increase the pressure," Baker said. "It comes at you in waves."
And now Pitino has ridden that wave back to the pinnacle.