NEW ORLEANS – There were no tears.
The Louisville Cardinals didn’t hang towels over their heads or pause to collect themselves as they talked with reporters.
Following their 69-61 loss to archrival and national-title favorite Kentucky in the Final Four on Saturday, Louisville’s players and coaches did not sulk. They were disappointed but not devastated.
Wayne Blackshear chomped an apple and conversed with the team’s other youngsters about his classes as he sat on a stool.
The team that had buckled the Final Four’s power grid -- Kansas, Ohio State and Kentucky were all ranked in the top 10 of both major polls at the end of the season -- offered the field a true underdog and added some intrigue to the gathering.
“Well, basically what I told the guys was that for Chris [Smith] and Kyle [Kuric], it was like preparing for the Olympics, and you just work so hard every single day, gave some extraordinary effort, then at the end you're on the podium and they're playing somebody else's national anthem, but you have a bronze medal around your neck,” said coach Rick Pitino. “When I compared them a few weeks ago to the '87 Providence team, it was in terms of effort and attitude. They made me really, really proud. They battled a great team tonight. We just needed lot of things to go right down the stretch.”
The Cardinals had no business being in New Orleans. And their postgame vibe in the Big Easy suggested that they knew as much.
Blackshear scored nine points in 14 minutes of crucial reserve duty against the Wildcats. But his October shoulder injury forced him to miss most of the season and commenced a string of personnel mishaps for the Cardinals.
Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles suffered season-ending knee injuries. Other key players were hampered by injuries, including Siva, who dealt with an ankle injury at the start of the year.
The team used mixed martial arts helmets in recent practices to protect three players, Siva included, who’d endured multiple concussions.
“We made it to the Final Four when nobody thought we could,” said Siva, who led the Cardinals with 11 points.
That’s why Pitino smiled on the Superdome podium as he talked about this Cardinals squad, one that had clearly overachieved by even reaching New Orleans.
The 4-seed cast doubt on what seemed like a formality -- Kentucky winning the national title -- with its effort.
A pregame trade with the Hornets might not have guaranteed a victory for the Cardinals. After the game, Pitino compared Anthony Davis (18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks) to Bill Russell. John Calipari’s squad shot 57.1 percent from the field to Louisville’s 34.8.
But with Kentucky leading 46-34 with 15:37 to go and threatening to enter Blowout Mode, the Cardinals clawed back with the same fight that led the Big East’s seventh-place squad to a Big East tournament title and Final Four appearance.
A Siva 3-pointer tied the affair (49-49) and capped a 15-3 run with 9:12 to play. But Kentucky surged after that moment, which ignited the school’s fans.
Louisville matched Kentucky’s toughness (outscored by only 40-38 in the paint). But the Cardinals failed to equal the Wildcats’ execution.
They mustered just 13 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds. Their 5-for-15 mark on second-chance opportunities was the lowest rate in this year’s NCAA tournament, per ESPN Stats & Information. The latter also reported that Louisville missed 13 dunks and layups.
But the Cardinals didn’t talk like a team that felt like it had blown a national championship opportunity.
“I don’t think there’s any disappointment here. Like, nobody believed in us, nobody believed we could make it to the Final Four,” said Gorgui Dieng, who scored 7 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. “Even they couldn’t believe we could make it to the Sweet 16. We wanted to make a big run to the national championship, but it is what it is. Why are we gonna hang our head?”
A “they all doubted we could get here” mantra reverberated around the locker room. And really, there were few reasons to believe the Cardinals could crack the Final Four on Selection Sunday, even though they possessed one of the top defenses in America.
“We don’t look at ourselves as the underdog because we’re a big-time university. We just feel disrespected because we’re winning,” said Russ Smith, who scored nine points. “It’s like nobody respects us.”
Their fans do.
Louisville loyalists flooded Bourbon Street as early as Thursday. Boisterous school cheers rang out from downtown streets. The blue-collar crew had crashed the country club assembly of power players in New Orleans.
The Cardinals’ supporters wanted the city to know that they were ready for the festivities.
They didn’t need a victory to party.
Pitino said he hopes his players follow that example.
“I told the guys, ‘Look, I'm going to Miami tomorrow and I'm celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around injuries and everything else. If you guys don't celebrate and have good, clean fun, you're fools. Because I think there's only been eight teams that got to the Final Four in the history of one of the greatest traditions and they did it,” he said. “So they're going to celebrate. Kyle will celebrate a little more low-keyed than Chris will, but they're going to celebrate.”