ATLANTA — It has been 16 years since Rick Pitino has been in the national championship game and 17 years since he's won it, and Monday night here in the Georgia Dome the coach will get his chance to take home a second title trophy.
He's there again, with overall top-seed Louisville rallying to beat Wichita State 72-68 in the Final Four's first semifinal on Saturday, only this time, Pitino got there the hard way.
His Cardinals were down a dozen points with 13 minutes left to the Cinderella out of Kansas, Gregg Marshall's team surprising most everyone by not turning the ball over and keeping the tournament's No. 1 team out of the paint.
With 13:36 to go, Wichita State led the Cards 47-35, the Shockers looking for all the world like they were going to shock the world.
And then, just like that, things changed.
"Coach P just kept telling us we're going to win, we're going to win," said point guard Peyton Siva.
"We had to dig in," Pitino said afterward.
Suddenly, Tim Henderson, a little-used walk-on subbing for the famously injured Kevin Ware, hit back-to-back three-pointers.
"Tim makes shots like that all the time in practice," teammate Luke Hancock said of Henderson, who had made just four of 17 threes the entire season. "We weren't surprised."
"I was shocked," admitted Pitino. "Not so much that Tim made those threes, but that he had the gumption to take them."
"It was so awesome for me," Henderson said, "but it wasn't really just me that did it. It was my teammates who found me and got me open, and I just hit the threes."
Suddenly, the sure-handed Shockers started playing loose with the basketball. After going 26 straight minutes without turning the ball over, with just less than seven minutes remaining the Missouri Valley Conference runners-up turned it over five times in seven possessions.
"I didn't realize it was that many times," Marshall said afterward, shaking his head. "That's what they do to people."
"But a team like Wichita State, you know you're just going to get one good run on a team like that," said Pitino. "And we were able to do that."
And then there was Hancock, a player who underwent two shoulder surgeries and, at times, had to go through 30 minutes of warm-ups just to get his arm above his shoulder.
"He's one tough kid," Pitino said.
Hancock used backup center Stephan Van Treese's mountainous screens to bury jumpers or score off the drive, finishing with 20 points in 31 minutes.
("You won't see that in the stat sheet," said Pitino of Van Treese's screens.)
"Luke didn't get named team captain without even playing a game for nothing," teammate Peyton Siva said of the George Mason transfer who sat out last season. "He's a great leader and a great player."
"We won it with our second unit," said Pitino.
You should have known it was going to be a great day when Goldencents, a Kentucky Derby contender that Pitino partially owns, ran away with the Santa Anita Derby in California. The race was run at halftime, when Pitino's team trailed the Shockers by a point, 26-25.
But Louisville got zero points from both starting center Gorgui Dieng and starting forward Wayne Blackshear, while Peyton Siva made just one of nine shots from the floor and Russ Smith made only five of 12 free throws.
Someone asked Siva: Did the depth perception affect your jumper?
"And your layup," Pitino threw in with a big smile.
This will be Pitino's first national championship game since Kentucky lost to Arizona in overtime in 1997.
The year before, Pitino's Kentucky team beat Syracuse for the coach's only title.
Now he could win his second. And in the press conference the coach was asked about the team's preparation for Monday night.
"If it's Syracuse (whom Louisville has already played three times), we won't have to prepare too much for Syracuse," said Pitino. "If it's Michigan we'll have to do a lot of work."
On this Saturday, Louisville and Pitino had to work their way into the finals.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com