For 35 minutes it looked like star student Billy Donovan would finally best old master Rick Pitino.
But Donovan’s Florida Gators shot themselves in the foot with bad shot selection and a long scoring drought, allowing Pitino and Louisville to get to the Final Four with a stunning 72-68 win.
“Outside of my six children being born, this is the happiest day of my life,” said a jubilant Pitino afterwards.
The Cardinals used a 23-8 run down the stretch — including a 12-1 surge at one point — and a six minute Gators scoring drought to tie the game and benefited from mental breakdowns by Erving Walker, who took some astoundingly ill-timed shots, and star guard Bradley Beal to keep on rolling.
Pitino’s group won four games in four days to take the Big East tournament and became the first team to advance to the Big Dance, just the way eventual champion Connecticut did it last year.
Centre Gorgiu Dieng — who starred with seven blocks against top-seeded Michigan State — came through again, rejecting Beal twice with the game on the line.
Beal got another chance, following a Louisville turnover, but immediately travelled for the second time in the game, handing the ball right back with 17.8 seconds remaining.
Following free throws, Beal had a third opportunity to tie it up with a three, but rimmed it out. After claiming his own rebound, Beal kicked it out for another miss, this one from Kenny Boynton.
Donovan had won 18 of his past 20 tournament games, including back-to-back titles, but has still never beaten Pitino, his former coach at Providence in seven tries.
Pitino improved to 20-2 against Florida in his storied coaching career, which includes the 1996 NCAA championship with Kentucky.
If he wants to win another title, Kentucky could be in the way, depending on how Sunday’s Kentucky-Baylor matchup goes.
The final outcome was a shocking turnaround. In a matchup of a great offensive team, No. 7 seed Florida (26-11) against No. 4 Louisville’s defensive juggernaut (now 30-9), the first half played to script.
The Gators shot 8-for-11 from three through 20 to take an eight point lead into the break.
“We’ve been playing a matchup zone all year, couldn’t play it against them, they’re the first team to beat it,” admitted Pitino, who switched to man-to-man with great results in the second half.
Florida went 0-for-9 from downtown in the closing half and became more reluctant to go inside, thanks to the game-changing Senegalese big man, Dieng.
“They outplayed us, but the last eight minutes won the game,” Pitino said.
Beal, a top NBA prospect, played well early and led Florida with 14 points, but became rattled by the tough Cardinals, who marched on, despite the fact star guard Peyton Siva fouled out after playing just 26 minutes (nine points, eight assists).
Louisville’s rally picked up steam when Siva left after his fourth foul and Pitino received a technical with about 11 minutes remaining. Louisville scored the next 10 points after the questionable calls.
But Florida still would have pulled it out had Walker, who shot just 3-for-10, played a bit smarter.
Russ Smith led Louisville with 19, Chane Behanan came up big with 17.