Rick Pitino sports an unblemished record in the Sweet 16 after Louisville's win over Oregon. (SI)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rick Pitino has been to the Sweet 16 on 11 different occasions. Going into his top-ranked Louisville team's game Friday night against No. 12 seed Oregon in the Midwest Regional semifinal, the 60-year-old coach had never lost a game in the round.
It's a streak that continues for Pitino after his Cardinals raced to an early lead behind mercurial star guard Russ Smith and then held off the Ducks for a 77-69 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Smith scored a game-high 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting from the field, while center Gorgui Dieng had 10 points and 9 rebounds for Louisville (32-5).
Louisville has won 13 straight games dating back to early January and next plays Sunday against the winner of second-seeded Duke (29-5) and third-seeded Michigan State (27-8). For Pitino, it is a shot to advance to his seventh Final Four and claim his second straight regional title.
Looking every bit early like the favorite to win the national championship, the Cardinals raced to a 16-point lead in the game's first 11 minutes behind nine points from Smith and never looked back. Oregon regrouped and cut Louisville's advantage to 34-26 with 3:48 left before halftime on a three-pointer by forward E.J. Singler. But the Cardinals closed the half with five straight points for a 45-31 lead.
Louisville in the second half took its biggest lead of the game at 66-48 with 8:57 left on a three-pointer by junior Luke Hancock, prompting Oregon coach Dana Altman to call timeout and droop his head. Yet Oregon (28-9) was resilient. With a 16-4 run, it pulled to within six points with 5:13 left on a jumper by Damyean Dotson, but it was too little too late for the Ducks, who were making their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2007.
As Pitino walked to the locker room after the game, he winked twice to screaming Louisville fans and smiled broadly. Just before he disappeared in the tunnel, he raised two fingers to the Cardinals faithful. As he did, a woman yelled, "Three more!" She was signifying the three victories it would take for Louisville to win the national championship.
This was the closest game of this NCAA tournament for the Cardinals, but they still remain the team to beat.