LOUISVILLE — Edgar Sosa will go down in Louisville lore for his 26-foot three-point dagger with 2.8 seconds left that gave the Cardinals a 74-71 win over Kentucky in Freedom Hall on Sunday.
But last week, it looked like Sosa might not even make it to the game.
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U of L Coach Rick Pitino had a heart-to-heart with Sosa and suggested that the 6-foot-1 junior from New York transfer. Sosa had been playing the worst ball of his career coming into Sunday's game. He was averaging just five points on 30 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent shooting behind the three-point line. Sosa also struggled on the defensive end to contain dribble penetration.
"I basically told him that if I were you I'd transfer, and I wouldn't wait," Pitino said. "You could go somewhere and have a year to learn the system. The fans aren't happy with you, you're not happy with yourself, and you're not having fun. We'll look at some schools that don't play any defense. There aren't that many, but I know a few."
Sosa declined Pitino's request and even gave his two cents' worth, saying Pitino had him on a short leash.
"I felt like if I made a defensive mistake, I'd get taken out of the game, and when other players made one, they didn't," he said.
Sosa and Pitino came to a consensus. Sosa agreed to give more commitment on the defensive end, and Pitino promised not to have such a quick hook. Pitino even decided to give Sosa the start, only his fifth of the season.
That move turned out to be a stroke of genius for Pitino, as Sosa had it going early. He drilled his first shot of the game, a three-pointer from the top of the key, and on the next play stripped Kevin Galloway and converted two foul shots to give the Cards a 9-4 lead at the three-minute mark.
Sosa's final stat line was solid: 18 points, including 8-for-9 from the free-throw line, with two assists and two steals.
"Coach told me that maybe it's not going to work out," Sosa said. "But this is where I want to be. I committed to Louisville before I even saw the campus. If Coach Pitino doesn't like something about my game, I've got to change it. I don't want to go to another school."
"He decided to stay, and I'm happy he made that choice," Pitino said.
Sosa would bail Louisville out of what could have been a season-killing defeat, as the Cards blew a seven-point lead (71-64) with 50 seconds left. First, Jerry Smith fouled Jodie Meeks on a three-point attempt, then Earl Clark threw the ball away on consecutive inbounds plays. As a result, Meeks converted three free throws, a layup and two more free throws to tie the game at 71 with 22.9 seconds left.
"It would have been difficult if we had lost," Pitino said. "We played great, basically outplayed them for 38 minutes. To lose that game would have been emotionally and physically devastating. I wouldn't have wanted to be in the locker room trying to motivate those guys if we had lost that game."
But Sosa prevented that with perhaps his finest game since his freshman year, when he lit up Texas A&M (then coached by UK's Billy Gillispie) in a 72-69 loss in an NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal in Rupp Arena.
In that game, Sosa was in a similar scenario: dribbling out the clock for the final shot. He back-rimmed that three-pointer, and the Cards went home with a loss.
But on Sunday, with UK guard Michael Porter giving him a couple of steps, Sosa pulled up and buried it.
"(Porter) was backing up, and I really didn't know where I was on the floor," Sosa said. "It's probably not going to hit me until later tonight when I see it on ESPN. Twenty years from now I can tell my kids that I played for Louisville and hit the shot that beat Kentucky."
"I'm very happy for Edgar," Pitino said. "It's been very difficult on him, and he had an opportunity to be a hero, which he was."
Now the trick for Sosa is to build on his performance, as Pitino said he'll remain in the starting lineup for the time being. Sosa was motivated by the presence of former U of L star Francisco Garcia, a fellow New Yorker now with the NBA's Sacramento Kings.
"Making a big shot like that in front of his favorite player, I think he's going to get his swagger back now," U of L's Preston Knowles said.
"I think everything is coming together at the right time," Sosa said. "This was the first game of 2009, and now I'm looking forward to the rest of the year."