DAYTON, Ohio — Louisville came into March Madness as the Big East regular-season and conference tournament champions, the No. 1 ranked team in the country, and the NCAA Tournament's top overall seed.
Yet Rick Pitino still wasn't 100 percent sure about his team. He knew they were good, mind you, but he was still waiting to see them respond with their back against the wall in a pressure situation.
The Cards had their backs against the wall against ninth-seeded Siena on Sunday, trailing by four points with 7:45 remaining.
But the Cards earned both Pitino's respect and some major March stripes by fighting back to reclaim the lead and hold off the scrappy Saints 79-72 in Midwest Regional second-round action at University of Dayton Arena.
Senior forward Terrence Williams had nine points, two assists and a key steal during U of L's game-closing 20-9 run.
"People kept asking me if we were a great team, but I really wasn't sure," Pitino said. "Until we were down four and had to make big plays offensively and defensively and get big rebounds, not until that point did I believe this team had it. At that point, you had a No. 1-ranked team getting ready to go down, calls that they thought weren't going in their favor, and everything was going against us. They had to rally and make big plays and they did. I think it showed me for the first time what we were made of. I wasn't sure. I had to see it for my own eyes, and I saw it."
Louisville led by as many as 14 in the first half and took a 42-35 lead into halftime. A Williams three-pointer at 17:15 gave the Cards a 52-40 lead.
But Siena slowly began to crawl back in it, something Pitino said he foresaw.
"I told our guys that they weren't going to go away, and they didn't," Pitino said.
Most figured that the Louisville full-court pressure would cause a bushel of Siena turnovers, but the Saints only gave the ball away nine times. Siena's pressure, on the other hand, bothered Louisville at times, forcing 17 Cardinal miscues.
The Cards coughed it up six times over a four-minute stretch that saw Siena go on a 12-0 run to take the lead. The feisty Saints stripped Earl Clark in the paint on two straight possessions, and Ronald Moore's layup gave them a 63-59 advantage at 7:45.
Pitino then called a timeout to settle his troops.
"I told the guys 'You're panicking,' " he said. "I said, 'Let's dig in defensively, move the ball offensively and take your time and relax out there. This is not pushover city; this is the NCAA Tournament. We played in the Big East for a reason, to prepare us for this. Relax, play our basketball game, come back and show your mettle,' and then they went out and made big plays."
Williams then rebounded a missed jumper by Clark and scored to cut the deficit to two. He followed that with a three from the left corner to put U of L back in front 64-63 at the five-minute mark.
"We thought we had them," Siena senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck said. "But there's a reason they're the No. 1 team in the country."
While Siena won the turnover battle, Louisville killed the Saints on the glass, outrebounding them 47-32 and picking up 22 second-chance points. Samardo Samuels put back an Andre McGee missed three to make it 66-63 Louisville, and Williams deflected Moore's alley-oop attempt to Edwin Ubiles and scored on a driving layup to push the lead to five (68-63) with 3:25 remaining.
Williams had a man-sized stat line of 24 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and two steals. Clark added 12 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, and Samuels chipped in with 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. Ubiles led Siena with 24.
Trailing 72-67 with 1:10 left, Siena had a chance to get within two. But Has-brouck missed a wide-open three, and Clark threw it down on the other end to put the Cards up seven. U of L was just 3-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final minute, but that proved to be enough to seal the deal.
The Cardinals now advance to the Sweet 16 and a matchup with No. 12 seed Arizona on Thursday at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
"In the beginning of the year we would have lost this game," Williams said. "Tonight we just dug in, and that just shows you the chemistry and growth of this team from the beginning of the year."
As impressed as he was with his team's resiliency under fire, Pitino was just as complimentary of Siena, a small school located just outside of Albany in Loudonville, N.Y.
"I'd love to take that whole team out to dinner when we come up to Saratoga this year," Pitino said. "I don't know if it's legal, but I'd love to do it."