ATLANTA -- Faith is not a concept rooted in convenience. True believers stay the course, showing the full depth of their commitment when faced with the highest levels of adversity. The toughest times, the ones that challenge you to the core, are when you find out whether you are shakable in your mores.
Pressure defines the core belief system of Louisville basketball. The Cardinals believe, over the course of 40 basketball minutes, that their grinding, withering relentlessness, will break you. Louisville's faith was tested to the core Saturday evening as Wichita State stubbornly refused to comply. Red-flecked dreams of a national title were slowly drifting away as the Shockers kept holding onto the ball, pounding it inside, ripping it off the glass, growing their lead, forcing the Cardinals to do everything but what they wanted on both ends of the court.
Louisville was in trouble, but never wavered. And now after a hard-fought 72-68 victory the Cardinals are headed to the national title game, their reward for their faith in what they do and for never giving in to doubt.
"No, I never think we're going to lose. I mean, not since being down 31 points with 15 minutes to go on Fat Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La.," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said afterward, referencing Kentucky's famous rally at LSU when he was coaching the Wildcats in the early 90s. "I never thought we would lose again when we're down. That doesn't mean we're going to win, we have lost. But that's the attitude, just pressing teams, have to stay in there."
The Cardinals are second in the nation at forcing turnovers and are used to having their way with opponents. Only five teams all season stayed under a 20 percent turnover rate against Louisville, meaning that almost every night, at least one out of five trips down the floor ended without a shot, and often resulted in quick points off transition. Two of those five games were in the Indianapolis regional, though, where Oregon and Duke were fairly frugal with the ball.
Perhaps Wichita State was encouraged by last weekend on tape, because the Shockers flat-out refused to play to script. A low turnover team to begin with, they used multiple tricks to help break Louisville's varied approaches in the press. Point guard Malcolm Armstead was busy, but the Shockers also made significant use of Ron Baker as a primary ballhandler. They often isolated the ballhandler instead of bringing another man back to help, which would bring more defenders with him. Coach Gregg Marshall even cribbed a long-ball outlet pass approach from Hal Nunnally, a longtime head coach at Division II Randolph-Macon College, which netted at least one bucket and several more opportunities.
The result was the Shockers didn't commit a turnover for more than 26 minutes -- the last 13 minutes of the first half and the first 13 of the second. With seven minutes remaining, they had four for the game. They had withstood the first body blow, when reserve walk-on Tim Henderson nailed two straight threes to cut Wichita State's 12-point lead in half (after Ehimen Orukpe missed two front ends of one-and-ones, not officially, but effectively, turnovers). Their plan was being executed as well as it could be.
Until it wasn't.
"They sped us up. In those 26 minutes, we had them on their heels. It was playing into our hands," a subdued Armstead said afterward. "Then they sped us up down the stretch, they got a couple baskets and the crowd get into it for them."
"Boy, I felt really, really good until we had that flurry of turnovers," Marshall added about the stretch run where his team finally wobbled. "I didn't realize it was five in seven possessions, which is certainly big. You know, they do that to everyone. They're going to make a run at some point."
And that's the point with Louisville basketball. Everyone knows the run is coming. Peyton Siva said as much afterward. So did Luke Hancock, the star of Saturday night's Louisville bench mob, who scored 20 of the reserves' 34 total points and forced a late held ball that more or less iced the win. Pitino said it. Wayne Blackshear said it in the locker room. So did several Shockers.
It happens in every game, despite the best intentions of the opponent.
"We just get after it," Blackshear said. "You can notice it either in free throws they're missing or turnovers period, but our press is going to wear you down. Either way, it's gonna be effective. We [saw] them getting tired."
Wichita State nearly got there. The smell of a seismic upset was wafting in the Georgia Dome air. The Shockers had their own approach, their own belief, and it hadn't been shaken. Thirty-three minutes down, seven left to handle before they finally broke. It wasn't a huge crack, but it was just big enough.
Existing in the Commonwealth under Kentucky's ominous shadow isn't easy, even for a program with such a distinguished history of its own, but now Louisville has a chance to lob a wicked return right back across the net at the Wildcats. One more win and they have issued an immediate reply to last season's Cat Coronation. And they will head into that game with one more body of evidence that their approach, their plan, their faith is enough to get them there. No matter when in the game the moment of validation will come, it's going to. And that's all that matters.
"We just knew that we had to stick together. Coach P told us we had to continue to go out there and have fun," Siva said. "'We're going to win, we're going to win.' That's what he kept repeating to us. We believed it.
"We made our run late," he added. "That's the trademark of our team."