PHOENIX – Once upon a time, Billy Donovan took Rick Pitino on an improbable ride to the Final Four.
Twenty-five years later, Pitino is heading back after another unbelievable run – one capped with an amazing late-game rally that left his old protégé wondering what the heck happened.
Freshman forward Chane Behanan made the go-ahead basket with 1:06 left Saturday and Pitino’s fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals outscored Florida by 15 points over the final 10 minutes for a 72-68 victory in the West Regional final.
All Pitino could think afterward was, “Hate to do that to ya, kid.”
“Tonight, it was very difficult because of the way the game ended, because they outplayed us for 32 minutes,” Pitino said. “And it really hurt inside. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching.”
Russ Smith, who scored 19, followed Behanan’s bucket with a pair of free throws and then Florida freshman Bradley Beal and teammate Kenny Boynton each missed chances to tie in the final seconds.
Louisville made one more free throw to seal the game and reach its ninth Final Four, the second under Pitino, despite playing the final 3:58 without point guard Peyton Siva, who fouled out.
Seventh-seeded Florida (26-11) went out in the regional final for the second straight year, with Donovan falling to 0-7 lifetime against the man who coached him on that Final Four team at Providence in 1987, hired him as an assistant at Kentucky a few years later and felt as proud as a papa when he watched Donovan win his two national titles in 2006 and 2007.
“I said this earlier, for myself, I don’t think any of us like losing,” Donovan said. “But if someone said to me, ‘You have to lose a game, who would it be to?’ I would say him.”
Louisville (30-9) will take an eight-game winning streak on its trip New Orleans. Awaiting is a possible matchup with Pitino’s old school, Kentucky, which will have to get by Baylor today to set up a grudge match to end them all.
“We think they’re excellent. I coached there. Great tradition,” Pitino said. “But we both want to get to a Final Four and win a championship.”