Behanan dreams Louisville to Final Four

March, 24, 2012
3/24/12
10:21
PM ET


PHOENIX -- Erving Walker tossed up his futile, last-ditch 3. As it plummeted to its pointless finish, the buzzer sounded and the scoreboard was clear. Louisville 72, Florida 68.

Rub your eyes for a moment, and check again. Louisville 72, Florida 68.

Ecstatic and unmoored, Louisville's bench sprinted across the floor, players hugging and popping their shirts and pointing at their fans and reveling in another incredible chapter of their unlikely story -- an 18-3 run to close the game, a recovery from Florida's lights-out first half, an Elite Eight victory over one of the hottest and most talented teams in the tournament.

The Louisville Cardinals were going to the Final Four -- this team! in the Final Four! -- and they meant to celebrate that fact.

But one player was restrained. As his teammates bounded and embraced, UL freshman Chane Behanan sat on his team's bench, head down, frozen in place.

"I felt like I was in a dream," Behanan said. "No way. No way.

"I don't know how we win that game. How did we win that game, man?"

In truth, the Cardinals won that game with the same characteristics that got them to the Elite Eight in the first place. Some are tangible, easy to see: versatile defense, rebounding, brilliant coaching adjustments, conditioning, Behanan's revelatory emergence.

Some are intangible, more difficult to define: unwavering self-confidence, pluck, intelligence, a knack for the big moment, the occasional dash of luck. Or, as guard Peyton Siva defined it: "heart."

Whatever you want to call it, the Cardinals are swimming in it. How else do you explain it? This is the same team that was riddled with injuries all season, played oft-horrific offense and lost four of its final six regular-season games.

These are the best guesses as to why this team hasn't lost since the start of the Big East tournament. These are the reasons why its coach, Rick Pitino, will appear in his sixth Final Four, why he'll become just the third coach (alongside Roy Williams and Jack Gardner) to take two different programs to multiple Final Fours. They're why Pitino moved to 7-0 against Billy Donovan, his former player and assistant and why, after three decades in the game, Pitino reserves a special place for this team.

"I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys," Pitino said. "They give me every single thing they have in their bodies. They're just the most incredible group to coach."

Why? Saturday was the perfect example.

Florida came out hot -- hotter than it could have ever reasonably hoped, considering it faced the nation's No. 1-ranked per-possession defense. Two days ago, the Cardinals had stymied No. 1-seeded Michigan State with punishingly quick defense, with a zone that gave the Spartans no chance of offensive rhythm.

On Saturday, the Cards unleashed their zone again, but the Gators shredded it. In the first half, UF scored 41 points -- just three fewer than Michigan State scored in 40 minutes Thursday night -- on 14-of-21 shooting from the field and 8-of-11 from 3.

Not only was Louisville's defense not holding the Gators' attack back, but Florida was comfortable -- swinging the ball from side to side, finding trailing players for open 3s, knocking down everything, seemingly burying the game.

Seven of Florida's eight first-half 3s came against the zone. On the first play after the half, UF knocked down another jumper against the zone, and Pitino refused to sit by and watch. He knew he had to switch. So the Cardinals moved to their man-to-man.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesSophomore guard Russ Smith scored 12 points during Louisville's game-ending 25-10 run.
Of course, the pupil countered: Donovan exploited the man defense by running ball screens designed to force Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng to guard the perimeter. It worked, until the master countered back: Pitino told Behanan to wait until the last second on defense and switch with Dieng, flustering the designed screens just as they began to take shape.

It was around that point -- with 10:56 remaining -- that official Karl Hess whistled Pitino for a technical foul even though he was talking to Siva. ("I'm yelling at Peyton, 'Why would you foul, he's falling down,'" Pitino said. "I'm yelling, 'Why, why? Why would you foul?' And he gave me a technical.") Walker knocked down all four free throws on that dead-ball situation, Florida stretched its lead to 11 points, Siva was in foul trouble and the Cardinals looked like toast.

"I'm not going to lie," Behanan said. "I thought that was it after that."

That's when one of the Cardinals' quieter players called an impromptu, in-game team meeting. Kyle Kuric doesn't talk much, his teammates said, but when he does, they listen. And Kuric was talking now.

"Kyle grabbed everyone together and said, 'Listen, we're going through adversity,'" guard Russ Smith -- whose nickname, "Russ-diculous," couldn't possibly be more fitting -- said. "'They're hitting ridiculous shots. Let's just get some stops, because we're facing adversity. We've been here before.' We took off."

The Cardinals embarked on a 25-10 run to close the game. Smith and Behanan combined to score 23 of those points. Forward Behanan made key buckets down the stretch -- the one to tie the game at 66, the one with 1:12 left to play, when he cleared Dieng out and drained a turnaround jumper to give his team its first lead since the 14-minute mark in the first half.

Meanwhile, thanks to Siva's fifth foul at the four-minute mark, guard Smith finished the game on the floor. In typical "Russ-diculous" fashion, he threw the ball away to Florida guard Bradley Beal with 25 seconds remaining ... but lucked out when Beal traveled in the ensuing fracas.

"I could have cost us the season," Smith said. "I was very nervous. Thank God we won the game."

As for that defense, by the final whistle, the Cardinals had played 48 possessions in man-to-man. Florida shot just 11-of-29 against that pressure. In the second half, the Gators went 0-for-8 from long range and 9-of-25 overall. Pitino's adjustment, combined with Smith and Behanan's punctual baskets, changed the game.

So it was that, slowly but surely -- the product of conditioning and defensive adjustment and an uncanny knack for the timely play, more than any obviously overwhelming run -- Louisville won the game. It overcame a white-hot Florida first half, five fouls for its starting senior point guard, a second-half Pitino technical, and an 11-point deficit to get to the Final Four.

All season, it has overcome injuries and a putrid offense ("The other day we had an open practice, and I said to my son, 'We're about 2-of-50' -- and Gorgui made one of the two shots," Pitino cracked). Now, at the most important moments, it is overcoming teams with more talent, teams with more future draft picks, teams with more size, teams with more speed, lineups like Michigan State's and lineups like Florida's.

This Louisville team overcomes.

At the end, it all culminated with Walker's pointless heave, with a team hugging and screaming at midcourt, preparing to cut down the nylon net, with the freshman forward who had just carried them there sitting on the sideline, motionless, trying to take it all in.

"Somebody wake me up," Behanan said, before trailing off and laughing. "I still don't know how we won that game. I'm glad we did -- but it was crazy how we won."

Crazy? Sure. But par for the course for this Louisville team, which makes "find a way to win" less a cliché than a credo. It isn't pretty. It doesn't always make sense. But if Behanan was dreaming, he should roll over and hit snooze.

Somehow, his team is going to the Final Four.

It's not time to wake up just yet.

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