INDIANAPOLIS — Entering the 2014 NCAA Tournament many looked at the Midwest Regional as the bracket’s toughest challenge.
Unbeaten No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 2 seed Michigan and No. 4 seed Louisville — the defending champion — all made the Final Four last year and talented No. 3 seed Duke and No. 8 seed Kentucky had enough firepower to make things interesting.
And that doesn’t even include No. 11 seed Tennessee, the team peaking at the right time of the season behind a talented inside-outside combination.
So as Louisville stared at that Midwest Regional as the trendy pick to make the Final Four, many wondered if they could get through what was looking similar to the World Cup’s “Group of Death.”
The Cardinals made it through the first two rounds unscathed but a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 8 seed Kentucky was a game that everyone in America wanted to see. Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way Louisville wanted it to go, as they fell to the rival Wildcats, 74-69, on Friday night to end its run of back-to-back Final Fours.
In the postgame locker room, a sullen Cardinals team didn’t blame anybody but themselves for the loss. The tears streaming down the faces of many of the players was noticeable. Chris Jones turned and faced a corner, unable to address the media as he held his face in his hands. Most players barely spoke above a whisper when addressing the media.
“I’m getting over it. As a man you have to move on from it,” senior guard Russ Smith said. “It sucks but there’s only 13 champions at the end of the year. Somebody has to lose, not everybody can win. We were among the last 16 teams and came up short.”
The Cardinals will stare in the mirror for a long time when they look back at Friday’s loss to Kentucky. Louisville led by seven with under five minutes left and Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle) and James Young (fouled out) were unable to return for Kentucky.
The champs had the upstart contender on the ropes and couldn’t finish them off.
“(I) told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You’re going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Soon everything began to unravel as Kentucky continued to fight until the final whistle. Despite never leading since a 2-0 advantage in the game’s opening minute, the Wildcats took a 70-68 lead on Aaron Harrison’s go-ahead three-pointer with 39 seconds left. Kentucky led for 65 total seconds, but they’re the ones that will advance to face No. 2 seed Michigan in Sunday’s Elite 8.
“We had a chance to control the game. We didn’t. I didn’t,” Smith said. “I’ve got to be a man about that. And you have to respect the opponent you were playing against; they did a good job. Other than that, I just have to take it.”
Rebounding and free throws were the major difference in the game on Friday. Louisville went 13-for-23 from the free throw line while Kentucky went 22-for-27. The Wildcats held a 37-29 rebounding edge, which led to an 18-10 advantage in second-chance points.
“They out-rebounded us and we made a lot of mistakes down the stretch that we didn’t need to make,” Louisville freshman guard Terry Rozier said. “They beat us to the glass a lot.”
The magical two-year Final Four run is over for Louisville — and with it, the talk of a potential dynasty. But head coach Rick Pitino downplayed any talk of legacy after the game and tried to focus on the present.
“We try to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. We’re going to be very gracious in this defeat because we’ve had a lot of celebrations, and it’s the end of an era for us, for a lot of us. So it’s something that we’re certainly going to miss,” Pitino said.
Losing against a rival like Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament might mean a lot to some players, but for Smith, his college career comes to an end after winning multiple conference titles and last year’s NCAA title. As much as this loss will sting, Smith, Luke Hancock and the rest of Louisville will have to move on.
“I don’t hold losses in, I don’t hold grudges, I don’t hate anybody, I don’t have a rival,” Smith said. “I’m a positive person and I’ll move on. At the end of the day, this was a loss for the rivalry of Louisville (and Kentucky). And I just empathize with the fans. I wish I could have given them the win. I’m so sorry. (I) could have done it for them; or for me. We lost to a great team. And I have that much respect for them. It’s just another loss for me and I have to move on.”
It might take Louisville awhile to move on from this loss, but the Cardinals had a tremendous three-year run that included a Final Four in 2012, a national title in 2013 and conference championships in two different leagues — the Big East and the American.
Next year, Louisville will move on to the ACC and Pitino will have to begin a new era after losing Smith, Hancock and senior Stephan Van Treese and potentially sophomore Montrezl Harrell to the NBA.
”We’ve lost Gorgui, Peyton, and now we’re probably going to lose Russ, Luke, Montrezl, and VT. It’s the end of an era. And I as a coach certainly appreciate all their efforts,” Pitino said.