A poster hangs in Louisville's locker room back home. In the center of the poster is a picture of the Cardinals' 2005 Final Four team in its huddle, ready to win another game. Beneath the poster are these words: San Antonio 2008. Louisville players slap that poster every time they leave the locker room, but until Thursday, even they weren't sure they could earn their way to San Antonio.
In Louisville's closet of a locker room Thursday at Charlotte Bobcats Arena, point guard Terrence Williams could only laugh. "I saw on the bottom of ESPN that the nation picked Tennessee by 57 percent," Williams said. "I hope we didn't mess up a lot of people's brackets."
The Cardinals, a group nearly written off after two critical early season injuries, roared into the Elite Eight with a 79-60 win Thursday against second-seeded Tennessee. Saturday, they'll be the ultimate underdogs when they face top-seeded North Carolina in its own backyard with a trip to the Final Four hanging in the balance.
They wouldn't want it any other way. "If it's a road game," Williams said, "it's a road game."
Though Louisville earned its No. 3 seed, the Cardinals flew into the NCAA tournament a bit under the radar. They entered the season with plenty of hype, but injuries to seniors David Padgett (broken kneecap, Nov. 18) and Juan Palacios (knee, Oct. 13) cooled expectations considerably. And even though Louisville entered the tournament having won nine of 11, the Cardinals seemed overshadowed in their region by the Tar Heels -- the tournament's No. 1 overall seed -- and the second-seeded Volunteers, who were ranked No. 1 in late February.
Louisville players knew things might get sloppy against Tennessee; both teams love to run and press. Either the teams would break the scoreboard or they would rack up turnovers. They chose the latter. Louisville committed 14 first-half turnovers to Tennessee's 11, but the Cardinals dominated on the boards and went into the break up seven. That wasn't good enough for coach Rick Pitino, who -- despite having a 23-15 rebounding edge -- thought the Cardinals allowed the Vols to manhandle them. "Pardon my language," Williams said, "but Coach P called us [a word that can't be printed on a family Web site] at halftime."
Things didn't get much better when the Cardinals emerged from the locker room. The Vols scored the first six points of the half, cutting Louisville's lead to 37-36 on a JuJuan Smith layup with 16:52 remaining. But after that shot, something clicked for the Cardinals.
They went on a 13-3 run as sophomore forward Earl Clark filled up the stat sheet. Clark finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds. The 6-foot-9 leaper also terrorized 6-2 Tennessee guard Chris Lofton, who had four jumpers redirected by Clark. After the win, Pitino said Clark didn't understand until about six weeks ago what it would take to fulfill his almost boundless potential.
"He's always had great skills," Pitino said. "Now he's acquired a work ethic. He's really worked hard for the first time in his life."
Lofton wasn't the only Vol who struggled. The point guard tandem of J.P. Prince and Ramar Smith combined to make 3-of-12 shots and commit seven turnovers. To make matters worse, Tennessee played most of the first half without forward Wayne Chism, who picked up his second foul 75 seconds into the game.
The Vols, who still never have advanced past the Sweet 16, expected so much more from this season. Coach Bruce Pearl ran them through a pre-conference gauntlet specifically to prepare them for games such as Thursday's. But Tennessee didn't play like a Final Four team Thursday. When the Cardinals made their highlight-reel plays -- Williams' behind-the-head pass to Padgett for a dunk late in the game should make One Shining Moment -- Tennessee defenders looked helpless. Still, Pearl refused to dwell on the negative. "I told the guys," he said. "that tonight's game doesn't take anything away from the finest season in Tennessee basketball history."
Shortly after Pearl said those words, Lofton sat in a chair in the center of the Vols' locker room with tears streaming down his face. In the corner, Chism said he regretted sending Lofton and his fellow seniors out on such a sour note. "We can't blame it on the refs," Chism said. "We can't blame anybody. It was our fault."
Meanwhile, the celebration continued on the Louisville side. Williams thought about the poster back at the Cardinals' old Kentucky home. He touched it so many times, but San Antonio always seemed so far away. It doesn't anymore. "That poster has been up there since I was a freshman. ... We just always fell short," Williams said. "Now we're one game away. It's more real."