2013 NCAA Basketball Championship: Louisville Cardinals' Road to the Top

Sean Bielawski@@SeanBielawskiContributor IIIApril 9, 2013

2013 NCAA Basketball Championship: Louisville Cardinals' Road to the Top

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    Louisville and Michigan treated sports fans across the country to one of the most enjoyable NCAA title games in recent memory.

    The intensity and quality of play was high from the tip. The best players had performances worthy of the moment, and there were unlikely heroes who stepped up on the sport’s biggest stage.

    Ultimately, Louisville was too much, as the Cardinals topped the Wolverines, 82-76, in Atlanta. The win gave Louisville its first national title since 1986, and Rick Pitino became the first coach in the history of college basketball to win a national title at two different schools.

    The Cardinals ended the season on a 16-game winning streak. However, it was not that easy throughout the year; there were definitely some ups and downs along the way.

    Here is a look back at Louisville’s road to the top.

April 28, 2011: Kevin Keatts Joins Pitino’s Staff

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    Just under two years ago, Kevin Keatts joined Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville, leaving his post as the head coach of the Hargrave Military Academy post-graduate team.

    Keatts then proceeded to play a key role in bringing two of this year’s newcomers to Louisville. He coached Luke Hancock at Hargrave, and in May of 2011, Hancock decided he was leaving George Mason to transfer to Louisville.

    Then, late in the 2012 recruiting process, Seth Greenberg was fired at Virginia Tech and Montrezl Harrell was released from his letter of intent with the Hokies. Harrell played his senior season at Hargrave under A.W. Hamilton, but Harrell had initially decided to go to Hargrave to play for Keatts.

    Both players were key components to the national title run.

Nov. 11, 2012: Louisville Opens the Season with a Win over Manhattan

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    Louisville entered the 2012-13 season with high expectations. The Cardinals opened the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 and were coming off a Final Four appearance a year ago.

    In early November, Louisville began its title run with a 79-51 win over Manhattan at the KFC Yum! Center.

    The Cardinals set the tone for the season with the kind of defense for which this team will be remembered. Louisville forced 26 turnovers and had 16 steals as it pulled away from the Jaspers in the second half.

Nov. 23, 2012: Gorgui Dieng Breaks His Wrist in the Bahamas

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    Louisville got off to a hot start, winning its first five games. The Cardinals had just dispatched No. 13 Missouri, 84-61, in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis down in the Bahamas when they received some tough news: Center Gorgui Dieng had broken his wrist.

    Dieng missed the next seven games, including the title game in the Bahamas against Duke. The Cardinals lost to the Blue Devils, 76-71, and they clearly missed their shot-blocker down low.

    Louisville was able to regroup without Dieng. The Cardinals won their next six games with the big man sidelined.

Dec. 29, 2012: Louisville Snaps Losing Skid Against Kentucky

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    Louisville had lost four straight to Kentucky, including a 69-61 defeat in last year's Final Four that ended the season for the Cardinals. Heading into this season, Rick Pitino had not beaten John Calipari since Calipari took over at Kentucky.

    While the Wildcats certainly did not have the kind of team many had come to expect under Calipari, they gave Louisville all it could handle on the road.

    However, Louisville held off its in-state rival, defeating Kentucky 80-77. Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 21 points while Chane Behanan added 20. In his first game back from his wrist injury, Gorgui Dieng had six points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes off the bench.

Jan. 19-26, 2013: The Three-Game Losing Streak

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    Louisville had won 16 of its first 17 games, including each of its first four Big East matchups by at least 15 points.

    Then, the Cardinals experienced some adversity, losing three games in a row. They fell at home to No. 6 Syracuse before dropping games at Villanova and Georgetown.

    It was a trying time in the Cardinals' season. Louisville was out of sync offensively, and Pitino even brought Russ Smith off the bench against Georgetown after a rough three-game stretch by the guard.

Feb. 9, 2013: Cardinals Drop 5-OT Thriller at Notre Dame

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    It looked as if Louisville had righted the ship, winning three in a row after its three-game skid. Then, the Cardinals traveled to South Bend for a prime-time game with Notre Dame while ESPN College Gameday was in the house.

    What transpired was one of the best college basketball games of the season. Unfortunately for Louisville, the Cardinals came out on the losing end in a 104-101, five-overtime defeat at the hands of the Irish.

    Louisville had numerous opportunities to win the game, but Russ Smith and the Cardinals fumbled several late-game situations, eventually leading to their final defeat of the season.

March 14-16, 2013: Louisville Rolls in the Big East Tournament

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    Louisville won its three Big East tournament games by an average of 16 points.

    However, while the title game against Syracuse ended up being a 17-point victory, it was anything but routine. The Cardinals outscored the Orange 56-26 in the second half, having to overcome a 16-point second-half deficit.

    The game capped off a bittersweet tournament that marked the end of an era, as the Big East conference will look drastically different next year. 

March 21-29, 2013: Cruising to the Elite Eight

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    Louisville earned the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and it looked every bit the part in the first three games. The Cardinals beat North Carolina A&T, Colorado State and Oregon by an average of 21.7 points per game.

    Their defense was suffocating (38 steals over that span), and Russ Smith was truly “Russdiculous.” He averaged 27 points in the stretch and put up 31 points in the Sweet 16 victory over Oregon.

    The Cardinals were hitting on all cylinders, as six different players scored at least 10 points in one of those first three games.

March 31, 2013: Kevin Ware Goes Down

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    Louisville was facing Duke in a regional final that pitted two juggernauts. It was the first time Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino met in the NCAA tournament since Christian Laettner hit the shot to beat Kentucky back in 1992 to advance the Blue Devils to the Final Four.

    The game was tight in the early going. Tyler Thornton was lining up a three on the right wing in front of Louisville’s bench when Kevin Ware hurried out to contest the shot. Thornton hit the three, but Ware went down in gruesome fashion, fracturing his tibia.

    His teammates crumpled to the floor. Some were crying. “Just go win the game,” Ware told his teammates, according to Pitino.

    The Cardinals eventually ran away from Duke in the second half and made their way to their second consecutive Final Four.

    For the final two games, winning for Ware would become a primary motivation.

April 6-8, 2013: Louisville Overcomes Two Double-Digit Deficits in Atlanta

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    Louisville was facing Wichita State in the Final Four. It was the top overall seed against the Cinderella story. The only problem was that the Shockers did not play like a Cinderella.

    Wichita State came out and punched Louisville right in the mouth, scoring the game’s first eight points. The Shockers then built a 12-point lead with 13:35 to play before Luke Hancock and walk-on Tim Henderson sparked the Cardinals comeback.

    Then, in the national title game, Louisville faced a similar 12-point deficit against Michigan in the first half. Again, Hancock—named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player—brought the Cardinals roaring back, scoring his team’s next 14 points. Louisville went into the half down by just one, 38-37.

    From there, Louisville turned up the pressure and got contributions from seemingly the entire roster. Along with his 15 points, Chane Behanan was fantastic on the glass with 12 rebounds. Gorgui Dieng had three blocks. Peyton Siva played a game worthy of a senior leader with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals.

    The end result was Louisville’s first national title since 1986.