Interesting challenge in tonight’s game. Filed the bulk of this column before the game was over, thanks to U of L pulling away late. Of course, when you do that, you wind up with more detail from early in the game than late. I’ll file some more analysis here on the blog, but here’s the (unedited) piece that wound up in the paper . . .
PITINO STILL PERFECT IN SWEET 16
So much does Rick Pitino own the NCAA Tournament round of 16 that he’s thinking of adding on a guest room.
Of putting in a pool.
Of installing a home theater.
Maybe that’s where he’ll watch the highlights of his eight Sweet Sixteen wins without a loss.
Think about that. When the University of Louisville beat Tennessee 79-60 in last night’s East Regional Semifinal in Charlotte Bobcats Arena, it made Pitino a perfect 8-for-8 in the round of sixteen.
Give Pitino five days to get ready and a trip to the Elite Eight on the line, and he’s more dangerous than a March monsoon.
Which, incidentally, is what his teams often resemble.
So far, apparently, does his Sweet 16 spell extend that his team can even play poorly and still swamp an opponent, as happened in the first half against No. 2 seed Tennessee.
In the first half last night, the Cards had more giveaways than Oprah. They had eight turnovers in the first nine minutes and still jumped to an 11-point lead. They had 14 turnovers (and only 12 made baskets) in the first half and still led by seven at halftime.
AT THAT POINT, Pitino must have sensed he could be in for another Sweet 16 party.
The history is impressive. Of his eight wins to advance to the Elite Eight, the average victory margin is now 20. No opponent has come within single digits.
But it took this U of L until late in the game to find the usual Sweet 16 swagger.
Instead, it was a decidedly unglamorous statistic that staked the Cards to their double-digit lead: Rebounding. The Cards grabbed 11 of the game’s first 13 rebounds.
The game looked sloppy. It was sloppy. But give the teams credit for this: Much of that sloppiness was caused by intensity. It’s rare to see a game when you’re not sure which team is more the aggressor. These two teams know only one approach — attack.
Tennessee scored the first six points of the second half to pull within one at 37-36.
SOMETHING NEEDED TO happen to separate one of the teams.
That something was U of L sophomore Earl Clark.
In one five-minute span, Clark took over the game. In a little less than three minutes, he scored nine points, ripped down three rebounds and blocked a Chris Lofton three-pointer.
Tennessee had no answer for him. In fact, when he plays like that, few teams left in the NCAA field have an answer for him.
And U of L’s lead swelled back to 11.
Tennessee hung tough for six minutes, then the Cards came with a final flurry. Williams scored on a layup, then made a highlight-reel no look pass to David Padgett for a slam, and then you knew. The Sweet 16 sweep was on. Up 58-48, the Cards outscored Tennessee 9-4 to lead by 15 with 3:45 left.
Clark slammed home an ally oop from Williams. He blocked a Tennessee layup. He was the difference.
“They say the sky is the limit for some players,” Williams said. “For Earl, it’s higher than the sky.”
Whichever team won last night’s game was going to face a monumental challenge. With the way North Carolina is playing, and the home court advantage it will have in Charlotte tomorrow, beating the Tar Heels in this regional final will be the toughest game facing any team in the tourney, Final Four games included.
But the Cards can start work on that challenge today.
For now, the story is the Sweet 16. And the headline is that Pitino is still perfect.