BY MIKE RILEY
This time no overtime needed.
With five out of the last six — and seven of the last 11 games — between Louisville and Notre Dame going to overtime, one could only expect another thriller, especially following the five overtime marathon won by the Irish in South Bend back on Feb. 9.
Not this time. On Saturday with a Big East regular-season title on the line — and the all-important double-bye in the upcoming Big East Tournament — Louisville grabbed an early lead, bent slightly in the second half, then won going away 73-57 before a record crowd of 22,815 at the Yum! Center.
With the win, Louisville (26-5, 14-4) finished in a three-way tie for first place with Georgetown and Marquette. Based on the tiebreaker, Louisville was named the No. 2 seed and will face the winner of Villanova and St. Johns on Thursday,
It was also the last appearance at the Yum! Center for seniors Peyton Siva and Mike Marra, along with junior Gorgui Dieng, who is being encouraged by Louisville coach Rick Pitino to enter the NBA draft based on his overall improvement this season.
Dieng had game highs of 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Cardinals, while Siva added 13 points and five assists. Marra, who has not played since suffering his second season-ending knee injury before the season, spent this season as an assistant coach and was named “honorary head coach” for Saturday.
“Right now, I feel that everyone is playing well and with a lot of confidence,” said Siva. “But we can play better.”
Siva, of Samona descent and from Seattle, had a large following for Senior Night festivities, which made an impression on Pitino, who appeared at his post-game press conference wearing a Hawaiian lei.
“I started coaching at the University of Hawai’i and I haven’t seen that many Samoan people in my life since then,” he said. “It was so much fun and I just kept thinking back to Hawai’i and how friendly the Hawaiian and Samoan people were and it was such a great touch at the end our game for all of Peyton’s family to come in. ... It was a fitting ending for three special young men. It was very exciting to win a Big East championship with Georgetown and now we have to go to New York and see if we can win that one as well.”
Louisville never trailed and led 37-27 at halftime. It was 42-29 when Notre Dame (23-8, 11-7) went on an 11-3 run capped by Pat Connaughton’s 3-pointer. But reserve Kevin Ware got the crowd going with an alley-oop pass to Chane Behanan to ignite a 12-3 run by the Cardinals.
From that point, the lead remained at double digits.
Louisville has now won seven straight and 10-of-11 since a three-game losing streak in January. The only loss was the five-overtime heartbreaker at Notre Dame.
So how does Pitino feel about his team going into tournament play?
“I am happy because we really did not have a bad game,” Pitino said. “Against Villanova, we did miss some free throws. But we really did not play a bad game this year. This is one of the more consistent teams I have coached. We are very excited ... and are doing some really good things and now we have to go to New York and try to win a very important tournament, because it is the last year for the Big East. We will never see a conference like this ever again.”
Garrick Sherman led Notre Dame with 14 points and Connaughton added 13. But Jack Cooley, who is fourth nationally in double-doubles with 18, inclduing an 11-point and 11-rebound performance in the Februrary contest, was held to seven points and seven rebounds while battling foul problems. And Jerian Grant, who scored 19 points, including some miraclulous shots near the end of regulation in their previous game against the Cardinals, finished with only eight points. He did have seven assists.
“You know, we kind of ran into a buzz saw today,”Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We expected a great punch and effort from them. Their defense really gave us problems the whole afternoon. Turnovers in the first half put us in a hole we could never get out of. One thing about their two guards, they really guarded our guards. It is hard for our guards, who are pretty darn good, to get anything going because their guards can really defend.
“I think they certainly are playing really well right now. But for us, I told our guys that I am very proud of them. I am kind of excited to play one last Big East tournament.”
Luke Hancock also finished in double figures for the Cardinals with 10 points and is looking forward to the post-season.
“This was a great way to send the seniors out,” Hancock said. “Both Peyton and Gorgui are great players who have had, and will continue to, have great careers. In the tournament, I think that we can beat anyone as long as we prepare well and play right.”