Michigan State’s Draymond Green walks off the court near the end of the Spartans’ NCAA Tournament West Regional Sweet 16 game against Louisville on Thursday night in Phoenix. Louisville beat the No. 1 seed, 57-44.
PHOENIX — Louisville figured its game against Michigan State to be low-scoring, a natural expectation with two of the nation’s best defenses butting heads.
The Cardinals had one big advantage: Gorgui Dieng.
Dominating inside, Dieng blocked seven shots and altered several others to anchor a stifling defense that helped Louisville knock off top-seeded Michigan State 57-44 Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals.
“”He was very disruptive,” Michigan State’s Draymond Green said. “We’re not going to back down from anyone. We took it at him. He pulled off some great blocked shots. That’s what he does. That’s his strength.”
The Cardinals (29-9) relied on 3-point shooting in the first half and moved inside in the second to befuddle the Spartans.
Their defense gave Michigan State fits all night.
Instead of trapping like it normally does, Louisville played a bait-and-switch game with the Spartans and Green, their multitalented forward. The idea was to jump out on screens and to make the Spartans work on every possession and, hopefully, wear them out.
Late Thursday, No. 7 Florida mashes No. 3 Marquette
PHOENIX — Almost every time he touches the ball, Bradley Beal does something special. His latest bit of basketball wizardry pushed Florida a win away from the Final Four and set up Billy Donovan with a perfectly scripted matchup against his old coach and boss, Rick Pitino.
Beal, the freshman with NBA written all over him, scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting Thursday night to help the Gators to a 68-58 victory over Marquette.
Next up for No. 7 Florida (26-10) — a West Regional final Saturday against Louisville and Pitino, who taught ol’ Billy The Kid a lot of what he knows.
Lesson No. 1 on any coach’s list, of course, would be to get good players. On this night, Beal was the best on the court. He also had six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, including one on Marquette’s Jae Crowder while the third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-8) were desperately trying to claw back in after trailing by 14.
Crowder, a senior and the Big East player of the year, never found his touch. He finished with 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting while another Marquette senior, Darius Johnson-Odom also went 5 for 15 in a struggle to reach 14 points. Buzz Williams’ team shot 31 percent and was held 18 points under its season average.
Erving Walker had 11 for the Gators, including a 3-pointer that came after Patric Young scrapped for an offensive rebound with 2:05 left. It snapped a 6-0 Marquette run that pulled the third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-8) to within six.
But the biggest difference maker was Beal, a high school national player of the year whom Donovan has been pushing to be more assertive.
In the second half, he gave about five perfect examples of what he can do when he steps up a bit. Blanketed by Marquette’s Todd Mayo, Beal hesitated, took a stutter step, then breezed past him for a reverse layup that would’ve made George Gervin proud.
It was the second time he’d blown past Mayo for a layup. He also had a 3-pointer, a couple of free throws and a pretty assist to Young to help the Gators go up 56-44 with less than five minutes left. For cappers — he dunked for the last points of the game, leaving him one short of the high-water scoring mark of his one-year — one-and-done? — college career.
This is Florida’s second straight trip to the regional final. Last year, the Gators lost to Butler — one of the NCAA tournament’s great stories of 2010 and 2011. An early candidate for 2012 could be this coaching showdown. Donovan was the undersized-but-gritty guard who helped Pitino and Providence make a run into the Final Four back in 1987.
A bit later, Donovan went against his mentor’s advice, quit a job on Wall Street then came to be Pitino’s assistant. A great coaching mind was born and now Donovan has two national titles and three trips to the Final Four, compared to one championship and five Final Fours for his old boss.
Pitino is 6-0 against Donovan, two of those in Florida-Louisville matchups.
It worked, in large part because Dieng was in the back to clean things up.
Tent-pole thin when he arrived at Louisville, the Senegalese center worked hard on his body and his game, developing into the one player the Cardinals had to have on the floor during his sophomore season. When he got in foul trouble, Louisville labored, so one of the key parts of coach Rick Pitino’s game plan was to make sure the Cardinals protected him.
They did and he protected the rim in return, getting five of his blocked shots in the second half to prevent Michigan State from mounting any kind of rally. The Cardinals move on to the West final against Marquette or Florida on Saturday.
“When we came here, we know (what) we’re going to face,” said Dieng, who also had five points, nine rebounds and three steals while matching the school record for blocked shots in an NCAA Tournament game. “We knew we were going to come to a war. We need to be tougher than them to win this game.”
Michigan State (29-8) started slow and never got going against Louisville’s amoebic defense.
The Spartans got shots they wanted and usually make, but couldn’t get many to fall against Dieng or anyone else, shooting 28 percent while being outscored 20-14 inside by the leaner Cardinals.
Green had 13 points and 16 rebounds in his final game for Michigan State. Brandon Wood added 14 points for the Spartans, who were outscored 17-4 off the bench.
“They disrupted us a little bit and we didn’t have enough guys who could play well,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
This sweet matchup of top programs featured two of college basketball’s best short-preparation coaches.
Pitino has used his speed-the-opponent-up system to reach the Final Four five times, becoming the first coach to lead three different schools to the national semifinals. Once past the NCAA tournament’s first week, he’s had a knack for guiding his team further along the bracket, going 10-0 in the regional semifinals.
Izzo has spent his 17 years at Michigan State building teams that can handle the rigors of the Big Ten or switch to greyhound mode when the opponent plays fast. He’s been as consistent as any coach in the game, leading the Spartans to the Final Four six times, including the 2000 national title, and 10 trips to the regionals round the past 15 years.
Izzo played the right hand the last time these two basketball brains met, taking the Spartans to the 2009 Final Four after they found a way to break Louisville’s pressure.
Pitino had something up his sleeve this time.
With Michigan State bogging the game down, the Cardinals struggled early, missing 12 of their first 13 shots. They snapped out of it by hitting 3s.
Russ Smith hit a pair, Jared Swopshire and Chris Smith each dropped one in and, even Dieng — 0 for 2 in his career previously — got one to go in.
Swopshire closed it out with a 3 from the corner to put the Cardinals up 23-18 at halftime. Louisville was 7 of 15 from the arc in the half, but got almost nothing inside, hitting 1 of 15 shots from two-point range.
“Our game plan was to cut off the paint,” Izzo said. “I thought we did actually a very good job of that. And yet they hit some 3’s.”
NO. 1 SYRACUSE 64, NO. 4 WISCONSIN 63:
BOSTON — Syracuse will be playing for a spot in the Final Four because of numbers.
C.J. Fair put up some like he hadn’t in a while, and the Orange finished with offensive statistics that Wisconsin just doesn’t allow in a 64-63 victory in the East Regional semifinals Thursday night that wasn’t secure until the final buzzer.
“Offensively we played very, very well and we had to play very, very well,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
Fair finished with 15 points — five fewer than he had in the last six games combined — on 7-of-9 shooting. The Orange scored 11 more than the Badgers allowed on average in leading Division I.
Syracuse shot 55 percent from the field, well above the 38.5 percent Wisconsin gave up this season, and the Orange were 5 of 9 from 3-point range, much better than the 28.8 percent the Badgers allowed.
All those numbers mean the Orange (34-2) will play second-seeded Ohio State (30-7) in the regional final Saturday with a trip to New Orleans at stake.
“I can’t tell you how good it feels to win a game like this,” Boeheim said. “This was a great, great game.”
And it wasn’t decided until Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor missed a 3-pointer with 3 seconds left. Josh Gasser corralled the rebound but his toss toward the basket was off at the buzzer.
“It was on line, and I felt like I got my legs into it,” Taylor said. “I knew it was a deep 3, but it felt good, and then to see it kind of come up short was kind of heartbreaking.”
Kris Joseph, a 75 percent free throw shooter, had missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 18 seconds to go with Syracuse up by a point, giving the Badgers (26-10) a chance at the victory.
Passing the ball around the perimeter of the zone but not creating much space, Wisconsin had to settle for Taylor’s shot.
“We were just trying to get an open shot and try and make them rotate in the zone,” Taylor said. “We did a little bit, but they did a good job of recovering to open guys there. They used the length that they have and kind of forced us into a tough shot, and it obviously didn’t go down. So it was tough. Hats off to them.”
The Badgers finished 14 of 27 from 3-point range but couldn’t make one over the final 6 minutes after a stretch in the second half when they made six straight in as many possessions.
“I think we naturally tried to move out,” Boeheim said, referring to Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone. “But you’ve got to get them off their spots. We didn’t do that for a stretch out there. But they have terrific ball movement, and they have five guys that can shoot. There aren’t that many teams like that.”
Scoop Jardine had 14 points for Syracuse, while Dion Waiters had 13 and Brandon Triche 11.
But it was Fair who made the difference after not being a factor late in the season.
The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, the Orange’s fifth-leading scorer at 8.3 points per game, was 7 for 27 from the field over a six-game stretch. The Orange had been struggling offensively as well, failing to reach 60 points three times in their last seven games.
“Sometimes you just need to see the ball go in the rim,” Fair said.
Jared Berggren and Taylor both had 17 points for Wisconsin, which came in allowing 52.9 points per game.
Syracuse reached that many points with 9 minutes to play, but there were two lead changes and two ties still to come.
“It was a nailbiter, but we made some plays down the stretch and got a couple of stops,” Fair said.
Wisconsin, which averaged 7.7 3-pointers per game and has a season high of 15, hit its last 3 with 7:03 to play when Taylor gave the Badgers their final lead of the game, 59-56.
Syracuse went ahead for good on a spin move by Waiters with 6:03 to play, but the lead was never more than three points.
Gasser made two free throws with 31 seconds left to bring Wisconsin within 64-63.
“I think that was the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn’t beat us,” Boeheim said.
The win was No. 890 overall for Boeheim, third on the all-time list, and it was his 48th in the NCAA tournament, breaking a tie for fifth place with John Wooden.
“Syracuse just has too many athletes that can do so many things, and it’s hard to prepare for that on the defensive end. You think you’re getting things done, but you’re a step behind,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “So we did the best we could, and I thought we played great defense. Not everybody on the court agreed with that, but I thought we played unbelievable defense for the most part. “
Syracuse won again without starting center Fab Melo, who was declared ineligible for the tournament by the school just days before the Orange opened with a shaky win over 16th-seeded North Carolina-Asheville.
The Badgers were trying to reach the regional final for the first time since 2005.
NO. 2 OHIO STATE 81, NO. 6 CINCINNATI 66:
BOSTON — Jared Sullinger and the Ohio State Buckeyes had blown a 12-point lead and fallen behind Cincinnati in the second half of the East Regional semifinals.
It was time for the “cool guys” to take a seat, and let the blue-collar team take over.
Sullinger scored 23 points with 11 rebounds and Ohio State turned back Cincinnati’s last charge with a 17-1 run to beat the Bearcats 81-66 on Thursday night and advance to the NCAA regional finals for the first time since 2007.
“We’ve got two types of basketball teams: We’ve got the cool guys and then the blue-collar guys,” Sullinger explained. “I thought to start the second half we got into the cool-guy mode and we kind of let our guard down. … I mean, we just came out and decided to be cool guys, and they came out and they stung us, and then we got ourselves back into another basketball game.”
Deshaun Thomas scored 26 points for the second-seeded Buckeyes (30-7), who will play Syracuse at the TD Garden on Saturday. Aaron Craft added 11 points — all in the second half — with five assists and six steals, taking charge during the second-half run that turned a four-point deficit into a double-digit lead.
Cashmere Wright scored 18 and Sean Kilpatrick had 15 for the No. 6 seeded Bearcats, who were attempting to match Big East rival Syracuse by beating a Big Ten opponent to advance to the East Regional finals. The top-seeded Orange advanced earlier Thursday by beating fourth-seeded Wisconsin 64-63.
It’s the first trip to the regional finals for Ohio State since it lost in the 2007 championship game to Florida. The Buckeyes lost in the round of 16 in each of the past two years.
“Coach (Thad) Matta has been through two Sweet 16s where the train kind of stopped. And we wanted to make sure that this train was going to keep rolling,” Sullinger said. “It’s tremendous to be in a situation like this, and it’s a blessing. But at the same time we can’t lose focus.”
Wearing Day-Glo orange shoelaces and piping on their jerseys, Cincinnati (26-11) fell behind by 12 at the half before going on a 19-4 run early in the second. The Bearcats led 52-48 with 11:34 to play when Matta called a timeout and ripped into his team.
The Buckeyes allowed just one free throw over the next 5½ minutes.
“They had 20 points in nine minutes and were shooting 80 percent, and some of that goes to them,” Craft said. “But we didn’t play defense like we did in the first half. We did a great job of sticking together and getting stops.”
That effectively ended the season for Cincinnati, which fought its way back into prominence after a Dec. 10 brawl with crosstown rival Xavier.
The Musketeers, who were unbeaten and No. 8 in the nation at the time, lost their top three scorers and then five of their next six games. But Cincinnati, which fell to 5-3 with the 23-point loss at Xavier, won 10 of its next 11 games despite using a four-guard offense made necessary by the six-game suspensions of Yancy Gates and center Cheikh Mbodj.
The Bearcats reached the final of the Big East tournament and beat Texas and Florida State in the NCAAs to reach the regional semifinals for the first time since 2001.
“We’ve come a long way. I take a lot of pride in that. Nothing’s been given to us,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “In the Big East, rebuilding a program has been a tough chore the last 10 years.”
Ohio State, which lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, reached the round of 16 by beating 15th-seeded Loyola of Maryland and No. 7 seed Gonzaga. The Buckeyes were among four Ohio teams in the round of 16. Ohio plays North Carolina and Xavier plays Baylor on Friday.
Despite just about 100 miles separating their campuses along I-71, Ohio State and Cincinnati had played just once since the 1962 national championship game.
This one was evenly matched — for about 30 minutes.
The Buckeyes led Cincinnati by five when Thomas hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Ohio State scored 10 of the last 13 points in the half to open a 37-25 lead. But Cincinnati opened the second half with a run of its own, tying it 41-all on JaQuon Parker’s baby hook shot in the lane.
The Bearcats led 52-48 on Gates’ three-point play with 11:34 left. But Ohio State scored 17 of the next 18 points to put it away.
“In the last 10 minutes, we challenged them. It was time,” Matta said. “It’s obviously a very, very good feeling to be down to eight tomorrow night, whenever the games end, with a lot at stake. I mean, so much is put on now, the NCAA tournament. I couldn’t be happier for this team.”