Friday, March 9, 2007

Cardinals come back, reach Big East semis

The "instant rivalry" between Louisville and West Virginia, born less than two years ago, got a new chapter tonight.

The rivalry was born in the Elite Eight of the 2005 NCAA tournament, when Louisville - champions in their last season with Conference USA, and about to join West Virginia in the Big East - made an unlikely comeback from 21 points down in the first half and ten points behind with six minutes to play, to win it in overtime and deprive WVU of their first Final Four berth since 1959.

In the fall of the same year, the Mountaineers pulled off an equally unlikely comeback on the gridiron, overcoming a 24-7 third-quarter deficit to defeat the Cardinals 46-44 in triple overtime.

Last fall the Cards returned the favor, upsetting then #3 West Virginia en route to U of L's first Big East football championship and BCS bowl appearance.

Tonight it looked like it would be West Virginia's turn. Behind by 17 points in the second half, the 'Neers scored 18 straight points to take their first lead of the game, and it was nip and tuck from there through the end of the second half. West Virginia scored what appeared to be the winning basket with 4.3 seconds left, but Louisville freshman Edgar Sosa had other plans. He took the inbounds pass, dribbled the length of the court, split three defenders at the foul line, and hit a layup to send the game to overtime.

Five minutes later it was tied again, but the Cards took over in the second extra frame to win going away, 82-71.

This is a very special Louisville team. Picked 6th in the Big East before the start of the season, they appeared at one point to be in jeopardy of being quite a bit worse. Their injury-plagued 7-4 start included losses to Dayton and Massachusetts. They lost at home to a sub-par Kentucky team by as many points (12) as they beat tiny Bellarmine.

They hit bottom with back-to-back conference losses to Villanova and Georgetown in February. The latter, Louisvlle's 13th straight loss to a ranked opponent, dropped them to 16-8 overall and 6-4 in the Big East, casting considerable doubt on their post-season prospects and spoiling the night they christened the Freedom Hall floor "Denny Crum Court."

They haven't lost a game since.

They got back on the winning track with a blowout at home over South Florida, then won by 13 at #5 Pittsburgh. Next up was 12th-ranked Marquette, who had dispatched the Cards with relative ease at Freedom Hall in January. The Cardinals got up off the mat three times to take this one and break into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season, at #20. The Cards closed out the season with three more wins and entered the Big East tourney as the #2 seed, with their AP ranking improving to #12.

Tomorrow night, Pitt will be looking for revenge. If the Cardinals clear that hurdle, Georgetown or Notre Dame will be waiting in the finals. I don't like to jinx my team with brazen predictions, but there is something about this bunch I just can't resist. It says here Louisville will win the Big East tournament championship, and take a top-ten ranking to the big dance.

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