NEW YORK (AP)—Rick Pitino was speechless for the first time all year.
The smooth-talking Louisville coach stood in the locker room at halftime Friday night and was beginning to wonder where his team had gone, the one that had won eight straight games and had so emphatically captured the regular-season Big East title.
“I don’t recognize any of you. I don’t know who you are,” Pitino told his guys. “That’s not Earl Clark, that’s not Terrence Williams, that’s not Jerry Smith. I don’t know who you guys are. Everything we’ve done to become a good basketball team you totally changed in a 20-minute half.”
The fifth-ranked Cardinals ramped up the pressure in the second half, putting together two big runs to beat No. 10 Villanova 69-55 in the Big East tournament semifinals.
They’ll play No. 18 Syracuse for their first conference tournament title since 2005, when the school was still a member of Conference USA. The Orange beat West Virginia 74-69 in overtime, one day after their epic six-overtime defeat of Connecticut.
Clark finished with 17 points and Smith added 16 for Louisville (27-5), which snapped out of a funk from beyond the arc by hitting 13 3-pointers in winning its ninth straight game.
“I think our guys recognized what they were doing wrong,” Pitino said. “The good thing about these guys is when you say something, when they know you’re right, they step up and admit what they were doing is wrong—and they stepped up and played great team basketball.”
The Cardinals wound up shooting 51.5 percent from the field in the second half, and hit eight of 13 3-pointers over the final 20 minutes. That after they were just 3-of-19 from beyond the arc against Providence in the tournament quarterfinals.
“In the past couple years, together with this group, we haven’t had a lot of success in the Garden,” Smith said. “For us to get to the championship of the Big East tournament, that’s saying a lot for us and what we’ve overcome.”
Meanwhile, it was just another disappointing tournament for Villanova (26-7), which still hasn’t won consecutive games here since 2004 and hasn’t reached the tournament championship since 1997.
Dante Cunningham and Corey Fisher scored 14 each to lead the Wildcats, but they couldn’t solve the intense full-court pressure that Pitino slapped on them coming out of halftime.
They wound up turning the ball over 23 times, and six of them were by veteran guard Scottie Reynolds, who went 1-for-6 from the field and missed all three of his 3-point attempts to finish with two points in 38 minutes.
“They really did a great job on him,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They’re the best defensive team in the country. On a night like that when they’re going to put so much pressure on Scottie, our other guys have to step up, because there were opportunities for other guys. We just didn’t do it.”
In the only other meeting between the two schools this season, Williams’ driving layup with 7.4 seconds left boosted Louisville to a 61-60 win on the road.
That victory proved to be a tremendous momentum-builder for the Cardinals, who’d been struggling to find their identity in early January. They returned home to beat then-No. 13 Notre Dame and topple then-No. 1 Pittsburgh, before beating highly ranked Syracuse the following week.
Suddenly, Pitino’s club was a trendy pick to go deep in the NCAA tournament.
It didn’t look much like that dominating team in the first half, though, when Cunningham scored at will inside and Villanova slowly built a modest lead.
Louisville still trailed 34-26 at halftime before Andre McGee hit the first of his three 3-pointers less than a minute out of the break, and Smith added another a few seconds later to close the gap.
Reynolds committed two of his turnovers on back-to-back possessions, and after Cunningham briefly slowed the Cardinals’ momentum with a basket inside, Smith hit another 3 and a few minutes later buried yet another from in front of the Louisville bench.
He emphatically punched the air as he strutted out near midcourt, capping a 17-2 run that turned Louisville’s halftime deficit into a 43-36 lead with 15:14 to go.
The Wildcats, coming off a last-second 76-75 victory over No. 21 Marquette a day earlier, managed to tie it at 50 when Dwayne Anderson scored with just over 8 minutes left.
But the Cardinals had an answer once more: McGee buried another 3-pointer that trigged a 10-0 run to put Louisville ahead for good.
“We knew this was going to be tough when you’re playing the Big East champions,” Wright said. “I love how they play. So, we got to get over this one, there’s no question. This one is tough, really tough because now you’re running out of chances.
“I told the guys, we’ll never have a chance at—they’ll never have a chance at this again, these seniors being in the Garden, and a chance to win the Big East championship. This one hurts, but we always get over them. I don’t want to say it’s going to be easy.”