This team emerged from nowhere, no expectations a week ago, transforming itself from a six or seven seed into a four maybe three seed in four unbelievable days. Four games in four nights, the comeback, payback tour, taking down three of the conference’s four best teams, all of them ranked, the fourth no slouch.
Holding on for dear life at the end, gasping for breath, searching for their legs, but never letting up on defense. Challenging every dribble, deflecting every other pass, denying the intended, taking a physical beating in the process. Falling behind early, but only briefly, allowing Cincinnati only 14 points in the first half. Feeding on the press, living on turnovers for a spell, turning the game into a nightmare for the Bearcats for a 50-44 win.
- Chris Smith will not be denied in his home town, striking early with a three-pointer from his corner that would set the tone. No flashbacks to last week, no backsliding. Chris is on and he’s not going to allow that to happen. Need more? He will come with two more three’s, each one better than the last. He won’t give up even when he misses, tipping his missed shot in, serving notice one more time to the Bearcats.
- Peyton Siva getting knocked into a herd of photographers, cameras and lenses at one point, limping back into action before a trip to the bench where gets a tongue-lashing from a non-sympathetic Rick Pitino. Sacrificing the body comes with the point guard job, too much at stake to give into pain. The old men — the coach and the dad in the stands — will not be disappointed, Siva taking this team on his shoulders with his 10 points, five assists and four rebounds.
- Russ Smith runs on instinct, shot from a cannon, lightning quick, those hands of his tormenting, catlike reactions when someone breathes on him, falling backwards or sideways. Leaning on people, in their faces. Who wouldn’t get frustrated after a while, want to swat the pest, throw an elbow at him? Just don’t do it while the stripes are watching. Credited with only three steals but, oh, that perfect form at the charity stripe, four of four critical free throws.
- Gorgui Dieng has the job of trying to contain the bear, Yancy Gates, chest bumping, fronting him, keeping him away from the basket a must while hoping the next whistle doesn’t send himself to the bench. A hard night’s work against a player with a history, holding Gates to only nine points. Meanwhile, laboring for 10 rebounds, three blocks and five points.
- Kyle Kuric contributing 13 points, slowing making his way back from the shooting slump, taking what the defense gives him, not forcing shots, looking forward to the brackets. Now with very good reason.
No matter what U of L does in the NCAA Tournament, this team has carved a special niche for itself in the long memories of their fans, demanding and commanding respect in a situation a week ago that was bordering on a vacuum. Winning for themselves a tournament championship in the best basketball conference in college basketball.