PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP)—Rick Pitino enjoyed his time at Providence so much he continued to rent a summer house on the Rhode Island shore, even when he was coaching at Kentucky.
“And then, because I lost too many games in Boston, I don’t do that anymore,” he said, laughing about his disastrous turn as coach of the NBA’s Celtics.
The former Friars coach returned to New England on Saturday for his annual reunion with the alumni, arena workers and school officials still hanging around from the days when he led Providence to the 1987 Final Four.
Pitino and No. 23 Louisville turned back the feisty Friars and held on to win 80-72 for its fifth consecutive victory and 11th in 13 games.
“We lost to a team that’s most likely going to be right there, going to the Final Four,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said. “Louisville’s got a lot of answers. If you don’t keep scoring, they get that little gap. You’ve got to make all your plays to beat a team like this.”
Earl Clark had 20 points and nine rebounds and made a key 3-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes left to stop Providence’s last run. Terrence Williams scored 12 points, and Jerry Smith and David Padgett had 11 apiece for the Cardinals (20-6, 10-3 Big East).
Louisville plays Monday night against Syracuse, which upset No. 8 Georgetown on Saturday, and Providence (13-12, 4-9) plays the Hoyas.
“Syracuse is a great team and we’re really looking forward to playing them at Freedom Hall,” Smith said. “They’re coming off a very big win over Georgetown, so it will be very exciting.”
Geoff McDermott scored 18 points and Randall Hanke had 14 points and eight rebounds for Providence. Jeff Xavier had 11 points, nine rebounds and five steals for the Friars, who have lost their last three—and seven of eight—and are in position to miss the Big East tournament.
“Somebody asked me if they’d given up. I was like, ‘You kidding?’ Don’t anybody ask me that question,” Welsh said. “It’s a ridiculous question. They fought their hearts out, and they never stopped fighting.”
But Louisville is riding a winning streak that elevated it back into the national rankings and made Pitino’s trip back to Providence a little less stressful. He even made light of his Celtics days, joking about the infamous rant when he reminded the team’s fans that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish “aren’t walking through that door.”
The Celtics, it turned out, didn’t need any of their “gray and old” stars.
They didn’t need Pitino, either.
They just needed former MVP Kevin Garnett and fellow All-Star Ray Allen, who were acquired in offseason trades.
“Garnett is walking through that door,” Pitino said Saturday, cracking the room up and then signing off later with, “It’s great seeing everybody. Thanks.”
Louisville, which had won consecutive games against ranked teams, struggled to put the Friars away early, as the teams traded the lead nine times; there were also nine ties.
Providence led 40-39 at halftime and went up 56-53 on Weyinmi Efejuku’s dunk with 9:49 left before Louisville held the Friars to one basket during a 14-3 run over the next 6 minutes to take a 67-59 lead.
Providence came within 67-63 with 3 minutes left before Clark hit his 3-pointer to give the Cardinals some room. After Hanke made a layup, Padgett made one of his own and drew a foul; the free throw made it 73-65, and the Friars never got any closer than five points again.