NEW YORK -- As he huddled up his team during a late timeout, Louisville coach Rick Pitino realized Preston Knowles had his head down.
“I said, ‘Hey, look at me, look me in the eye,’’ Pitino said. “And he said, ‘I can’t.’ He was that tired. Then we go back out and he dogged a guy the whole length of the court, never let up.’’
That has been Knowles’ MO all season -- never let up.
He has endured his share of infamy -- his foolish foul a zip code away from the basket cost Louisville a win against West Virginia -- but he hasn’t stopped.
Nor has Louisville. The overachieving Cardinals are ready to scale yet another improbable mountain. With its 83-77 overtime win against Notre Dame, Louisville faces Connecticut in the Big East tournament final in a matchup featuring a team picked to finish eighth in the preseason versus one expected to land at tenth.
The Cardinals are here for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the superb job Pitino has done coaching this group. He has catered his teaching to this team’s strengths, building up a defensive behemoth that thrives on disruption. Against the Irish, somehow the native New Yorker’s warnings of "shoot-uh" could be heard loud and clear over the frenzied Madison Square Garden.
But they are here also because of Knowles. The senior has welcomed the mantle of leader with grace, comfortable in his abilities to lead a team.
His spot is so secure now that, during the first half when Pitino lost his cool and was about to get a technical, Knowles calmed him down.
“Me and Coach, our relationship has just skyrocketed,’’ Knowles said. “When I talk to him he actually listens to me now.’’
Knowles rarely talks about himself and though he will, when pressed, admit that he is fueled by the notion that he, like his team, flies a little bit under the radar, he doesn’t really care about individual nonsense.
Consequently, neither does his team.
Pitino has called this the most enjoyable team he’s been around since 1987, a group that is selfless to a fault.
And he knows the root of that attitude: It is Knowles.
“We don’t care about what anyone else thinks about us or awards or any of that,’’ he said. “We just care about winning.’’
Knowles took care of that, too, last night. Notre Dame led by as many as 16 in the first half and 14 at the break. The Irish picked apart the Cards’ defense easily and appeared headed for another rout in as many nights.
Instead, Louisville recorded its biggest comeback of the season.
The Cards cut it to two, 66-64, with 3:53 left in regulation, but then Peyton Siva was whistled for his fifth foul. The point guard, who just a play before deftly cut through the Notre Dame defense to kick a pretty pass to a wide-open Kyle Kuric, sat down with 15 points and seven assists.
What should have been game over instead became game on.
Knowles seamlessly slid over to the point guard position, opting mostly to keep the ball in his own hands. He scored Louisville’s final eight points in regulation to force the overtime.
Given the chance to crow about his own success Knowles, of course, deflected the praise. He cited his teammates for setting solid screens to get him open, ignoring his relentless attack on the rim.
“I don’t care about all that,’’ he said. “I just want to win.’’
Don’t expect him to let up.