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Cardinals scale Mountaineers' lead
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The master motivator himself, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, admitted he was lying when he told his players at halftime he was sure they were going to beat West Virginia.
That's because Louisville's trip to the Final Four looked like a lost cause thanks to the Mountaineers' hotshot shooters.
Almost every road to a championship takes at least one unexpected twist, though, and none was more astonishing than the second-half rally the Cardinals staged Saturday to earn a 93-85 overtime win and a trip to college basketball's biggest stage.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life," Pitino said.
Cramping, limping, barely able to run, Larry O'Bannon scored 24 points and Taquan Dean had 23 to lead fourth-seeded Louisville (33-4) back from a 20-point deficit to the scintillating victory in the Albuquerque Regional final.
Seventh-seeded West Virginia (24-11), trying to make the Final Four for the first time since 1959, went home despite making 10 3-pointers in the first half and sending Pitino and the Cardinals into shock.
"I've never abandoned a whole scouting report at halftime," he said. "But it had to be abandoned."
Pitino instructed his players to scrap their zone defense, start trapping and pressing, and play more aggressively on offense. They followed his directions and, in doing so, they helped him make history -- becoming the first coach to take three men's programs to the Final Four.
First it was Providence, then Kentucky three times, and now this. The Cardinals will play Illinois next Saturday in St. Louis.
"Certainly, having been to three different schools, I have nothing but respect for him because I know how difficult it is," said Vivian Stringer, who did it on the women's side, with Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers.
Louisville had every reason to pack it in after the Mountaineers took a 38-18 lead.
And it wasn't just that coach John Beilein's team made 11 of its first 16 field-goal attempts, or that it shot 10-for-14 from 3-point range in the first half, or that it made a total of 18 from long range, second to only the 1990 Loyola Marymount team in the history of the tournament.
It was also the way some of the shots fell.
Beilein's son, Patrick, banked one in from an awkward angle in front of the Louisville bench. He made another from the 'B' in the New Mexico "Lobos" logo set about 30 feet from the basket.
"They were falling out of bounds, shooting from half-court and banking them in," Pitino said. "You've got to give them all the credit in the world."
Pitino spent much of the first half in an unfamiliar pose -- sitting on the bench, watching shot after shot fall and hoping that when the wave ended, his team would still have a chance.
Turns out, the Cardinals did.
"That's the beauty of this game -- expect the unexpected," John Beilein said.
Louisville pulled within arm's distance many times in the second half, but on every occasion, Johannes Herber or Kevin Pittsnogle (six 3-pointers, 25 points) made 3s to keep the Mountaineers ahead.
Not until O'Bannon, the region's most valuable player, slithered through the defense and made a layup with 38 seconds left did Louisville tie it at 77 -- the first tie since 3-all. And not until overtime began did West Virginia finally start missing.
"I wouldn't say we were worn out," Pittsnogle said. "We still had a lot of gas left. We just couldn't make the key plays when we had to make them."
Led by Dean's seventh 3-pointer and four free throws by O'Bannon, the Cardinals opened it up in overtime.
When the buzzer sounded, Pitino started hugging players, and O'Bannon chucked the ball toward the ceiling at The Pit, which hosted a game almost as exciting as the 1983 final when Jim Valvano and North Carolina State won their improbable championship.
"Just to come out and accomplish something ... of this magnitude just makes it that much sweeter," O'Bannon said.
Louisville made its eighth Final Four despite playing the final 4:02 of regulation and overtime without arguably its best player, Francisco Garcia, who couldn't avoid the fouls as the Cardinals started trapping, pressing, doing whatever they could to disrupt the torrid Mountaineers.
Both teams had chances to win in regulation. J.D. Collins had his 10-foot jumper swatted by Brandon Jenkins, then in transition, Dean got a good look just before the buzzer, but the shot rimmed off.
Once Louisville's domination of overtime was complete, the stats didn't seem so lopsided. Sure, the Mountaineers made more 3s -- 18-to-11 to combine for an NCAA tournament record -- but the overall field-goal shooting was 55.3 percent for West Virginia to 55.2 to Louisville. Percentages like that almost always guarantee victory in modern-day hoops.
Only one team could win, though, and the Mountaineers were sent home, coming oh, so close to their first trip to the Final Four since Jerry West donned the gold and blue.
"The scoreboard is the only place we lost today," Beilein said.
Louisville, meanwhile, is moving on. The Cardinals made it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1986, when Denny Crum and Pervis Ellison led them to their second national title.
Now, it's Pitino trying to bring his second national championship back to the Bluegrass -- but this time to Louisville, not Kentucky.
"My pride level for this basketball team is as high as it has ever been," he said.
Notes: The 33 wins match Louisville's high for a season. The Cardinals won 33 en route to the national title in 1980. ... The last No. 4 seed to advance to the Final Four was Ohio State in 1999. ... West Virginia was trying to become the highest-seeded team to make the Final Four since LSU (11th) in 1986.