PHOENIX -- A quick recap of Louisville's 72-68 win over Florida on Saturday:
Overview: Somehow, despite everything, this Louisville team finds a way.
What else can you say?
The vaunted Louisville defense -- the nation's best on a per-possession basis, and one that swallowed up the No. 1-seeded Michigan State Spartans in the Sweet 16 -- was nowhere to be found in the first half. The Gators' vaunted offense -- the third-most efficient in the country -- went to work early and often. Florida's scoring was stellar in the first 20 minutes: The Gators posted 41 points on 14-for-21 shooting from the field, including 8-of-11 from 3-point range (yes, 8-for-11, good for a mind-boggling 72.7 percent). Much of this shooting was just flat hot, but some of it had to do with Louisville's defense -- which gave up a handful of open looks and transition 3s to trailing shooters such as Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton.
It would have been a shock to see Rick Pitino's team come out so flat in two straight halves, and the Cardinals turned up the pressure early, going on a 7-2 run to cut the lead to 43-40 in the first two minutes of the second half.
Florida didn't slow down, though. Instead, the Gators kept pushing, unaffected by the Cardinals' pressure defense, and the Gators continued to pile up points. Meanwhile, Louisville's 3-point shooting -- the most important facet of its offense -- went cold. The Cardinals shot 1-of-6 from beyond the arc in the first eight minutes of the second half, and by the under 12-minute timeout they trailed 54-47.
Turning point: That's when official Karl Hess struck. Hess whistled a somewhat ticky-tack foul on guard Peyton Siva, his fourth of the game, sending Louisville's leader to the bench with just under 11 minutes remaining. Pitino was livid, and Hess wasted no time assessing (or, as the Louisville fans sitting behind me put it, "Hessing") a technical foul. Walker stretched the Gators' lead, and a quick Erik Murphy hook brought it to 60-49, and the game appeared easily in hand.
Oh, and this wasn't exactly a turning point -- it came before the Hess-Pitino debacle -- but with 12:31 left, Walker assisted Patric Young on one of the most ridiculous and mind-blowing alley-oops these eyes have ever seen. No Rapid Reaction would be complete without its mention. (Just ... wow.)
But Louisville didn't go away. With six minutes remaining, Walker missed two free throws, which were followed by a corner jumper from Louisville's Russ Smith, a Bradley Beal travel and a trademark Smith runner. Suddenly Louisville trailed just 65-64 with 4:30 left to play.
Hess struck again. Pitino had gambled by leaving Siva in the game for much of the second half despite his four fouls, but Siva reached around Young in the post, and Hess called him for his fifth. By this point, Pitino either agreed (it wasn't a smart play on Siva's part, that's for sure) or was too exhausted to complain, but in any case Louisville's most important player ended his night with his team down one and just 3:58 left to play.
And yet, the Cardinals clawed back, getting the stops they couldn't find in the first half, scrapping for buckets under the rim and even getting a break or two (especially Beal's turnover after an awful pass from Smith in the final seconds). Chane Behanan gave Louisville its first lead with less than a minute to play, as much a turning point as this game had. Smith extended the lead to three points on two free throws; Florida missed two good looks at 3s on the penultimate possession; and the Cardinals' comeback -- so unlikely and yet so characteristic of this team -- was complete.
Key player: Smith. The guard was his typical "Russdiculous" self, mixing head-shaking plays with timely brilliance, and he had to take over for Siva in the final four minutes. He poked and prodded the Florida defense in classic Siva style, finding Behanan for a huge bucket to tie the game at 66 with three minutes left. Smith went to the line with a one-point lead and just 16.7 seconds remaining.
Likewise, Behanan's canny interior play was major again -- his bucket in the final minute gave Louisville its first lead of the second half, at 69-68. Behanan took control, telling Gorgui Dieng to clear out and let him work on Murphy, and he did. It couldn't have come at a better time. A star, as they say, was born.
Up next: Louisville's remarkable season continues with a trip to the Final Four and a likely matchup with Commonwealth rival Kentucky; prepare for every Kentucky resident to make an RV-led pilgrimage to New Orleans this week. (Provided, of course, the juggernaut that is the Kentucky Wildcats beats Baylor on Sunday.) Meanwhile, Florida falls one game short of becoming the first No. 7 seed since the 1984 Villanova Wildcats to make it to the Final Four.
And Florida coach Billy Donovan, so close to the man who robbed him of that Final Four spot, falls to 0-7 against his former coach and mentor -- in the most difficult of ways.