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Pitino proves Hall of Fame chops as Louisville rallies into Final Four


PHOENIX -- My goodness, Florida's up by 11 and Bill Frieder has lost his mind.

You remember, Bill, the old Michigan man? Bo Schembechler fired him 23 years ago because he wasn't one. Everybody knows Bill. He's a color man doing the tournament on national radio this time of year. He's done some crazy things in his career. This may be the craziest.

This West Regional final is over. Florida's shooting, defense and athleticism has slowly overcome a game Louisville. It was nice while it lasted. Rick Pitino is a master but he wasn't overcoming this.

Florida's up by 11 with eight and change left and Frieder knows it's over -- except he says the opposite.

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"They're not done," Frieder says of Louisville and Pitino. "He's a Hall of Fame coach."

He says it on national radio.

Good Lord, the officials are inconsistent. Louisville fans are particularly upset with veteran Karl Hess. With 10:56 left the great Pitino has had enough. His point guard Peyton Siva is called for his third and fourth fouls within 19 seconds of each other.

Pitino gets a technical. He says he was trying to position leading scorer Kyle Kuric. The official hears something else. Florida's Erving Walker goes to the line and converts four free throws (two after a foul). For the first time that Gators lead is 11.

Asked if it was a tactical move by his dad to take pressure off the Cardinals, Louisville assistant Richard Pitino asserts, "No. You don't do that in an Elite Eight game."

"You can't change," Louisville's Russ Smith says later, "because the game is being called a certain way."

So they don't change. And neither to the officials. Siva fouls out with four minutes left. Pitino has to play with two starters nursing four fouls down the stretch.

Holy cow, what just happened? The Cardinals made believers of us all in beating Florida 72-68 on Saturday in the West Regional final. Frieder. Smith. Siva. Even a US Airways Center crowd that found itself rooting for a fourth-seeded "underdog." One coached brilliantly on Saturday by a 59-year old certain Hall of Famer with more than 600 wins and millions of dollars in the bank.

Wait, Hall of Famer? Pitino isn't, officially, which is going to be even more embarrassing nine days from now if he doesn't make it. Pitino is one of the 12 finalists for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

"I've never said this publically but I'll say it here," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm absolutely shocked he's not in the Hall of Fame. Shocked."

That would be Donovan's second-biggest shock of the day. America probably saw a little bit of themselves in these Cardiac Cards. A 6-foot-11 center from Africa (Gorgui Dieng) who is really just learning the game. The inconsistent Smith, who is just as likely to shoot you out of a game as win one. A freshman, Chane Behanan, who is going to be a star when that 6-7, 250-pound frame asserts itself at both ends.

Three Louisville players watched the game from the stands, injured.

Oh yeah, that 11-point lead? Pfft. Donovan got schooled. His team scored one basket -- only total three points -- in the final 8:14. Louisville went on an 18-3 run to sew up the school's first Final Four since 2005.

The great friendship between student and teacher was decided cruelly for one. The Gators, who shot 66.6 percent in the first half, shot 37 percent in the second. The Gators, who made 8 of 11 3s in the first half, missed all nine in the second half.

"That's the difference between a doctor and a surgeon," said Tom O’Grady after hugging Pitino in the wild, incredible, postgame celebration.

O'Grady is a friend from Long Island who shares some of the same interests as Pitino -- horse racing, basketball and New York. Somehow he had gotten his hands on a credential.

"This is the best team you could ever be associated with," O’Grady added. "No egos, no stars."

Donovan agreed in making his Hall-of-Fame pitch: "I don't think there is a coach in the country who has done more with less."

Pitino is in his sixth Final Four with perhaps his most unlikely team since his first at Providence 25 years ago. That's why someone's heart was going to be broken Saturday when the two great coaches and friends met at midcourt. Donovan, the plucky guard who had led the Friars in 1987, let his mentor have the first word.

"I'm sorry," Pitino said.

No need to apologize. Donovan is now 0-7 against his old coach.

A lot of things happened in the last eight minutes and change, most of them magical for Louisville and Pitino. Dieng, who had been called for goaltending at least twice, deftly blocked two Florida shots. That gave him nine in two games and defensive player of the regional honors, had there been such a thing.

The Good Russ Smith showed up scoring seven of his 19 points down the stretch. That's the Good Russ Smith because a lot of the time he is the Bad Russ Smith. Heading into the second-round game against New Mexico, Smith had two field goals in nine days. Behanan rose up with his body coaches would kill for, producing a killer finish that finished the Gators. The kid endured the last 13:22 with four fouls, scoring 11 of his 17 points in that span.

"It's called gut-check time," Louisville guard Chris Smith said. "You either have it in you or you don't. We found that in us today."

The game wasn't over for five minutes and already Pitino had broken down the game on CBS for Reggie Miller and then on radio for Frieder. The world was exploding around him and Pitino was technically talking about how Florida's Casey Prather "flops in the post" and how he told Behanan to use something called "the crab dribble" in the closing minutes.

Frieder had been right.

"I know his coaching style," he said. "I know how hard his kids play. For him to get six or eight points [behind] is nothing. No. 1, he played his players who are in foul trouble which you have to do. A lot of coaches don't. They save them until it's too late. But he made enough adjustments."

My God, now it says here in the bracket that Louisville could be playing Kentucky in one national semifinal. Kentucky. Can't a guy enjoy this for even a minute?

Yes. Pitino called Saturday the "happiest day" of his life aside from the birth of his children. It is a life that has included the loss of a six-month old son, Daniel, who died of heart failure. Pitino was notified by a state trooper who pulled over the Providence team bus traveling back from the 1987 Big East tournament.

Twenty-five years later, Pitino fondly recalled, the loss of his dear friend and brother-in-law Willie Mindardi who was killed in 9/11.

"It will never be as good as when Willie was alive," he said.

Maybe not, but someone in the Louisville party this week found a downtown Phoenix bar called "Coach and Willie's."

"We’re going into that bar tonight and I know my wife, myself and children will cry a little bit looking at the name Willie," Pitino said. "But it eases the pain when have your family together ... I see them out on the court so happy and it gives me chills inside."

The only remaining pressure on Louisville is in the hands of the Naismith folks. It's going to awful embarrassing the day of the national championship game leaving out a more-than-deserving coach who might be playing in it.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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