Mark Story

With T-Will, U of L finds a way

DAYTON, Ohio — The final horn had sounded. Rick Pitino walked across the floor of the University of Dayton Arena.

He shook hands with the CBS announcing team of Verne Lundquist and Bill Rafferty.

Then, exhaling deeply, Pitino let out a giant sigh.

All season, many — certainly including me — had wondered how a U of L roster whose key players have had some dramatic past NCAA Tournament meltdowns would respond in a tight spot under tourney pressure.

Few expected that stomach-churning test to come against the Siena Saints in the second round of the Midwest Region here Sunday.

But there the Cardinals and their No. 1 overall seeding in the NCAA Tournament were, trailing the plucky little team (only one key player taller than 6-foot-6) from New York, 63-59 inside the final eight minutes of the game.

For the Cards, this was a test of will.

Fortunately for them, they had an abundance of T-Will.

Louisville escaped Siena 79-72 before a crowd of 12,596 filled heavily with U of L partisans (including Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, decked out in a red sweater vest seated not far behind the Cardinals' bench).

U of L survived (and advanced) because its senior star, Terrence Williams, flat-out would not let it go down.

"He took the game over," Pitino said, "and made the big plays."

Down four, and with the pressure mounting of possibly being on the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tourney history, Williams followed in an Earl Clark miss to cut the deficit to two with 7 minutes left.

Next, he drained a coldblooded three from deep in the right corner at 4:58 to return U of L to a lead (65-64) it would never relinquish.

For good measure, the bouncy 6-foot-6 swingman from Seattle rose from the floor to break up an attempted Siena alley-oop pass.

On the next trip down the floor, Williams made a hard drive for a layup at 3:25 to put U of L up by eight and give the Cards enough cushion to escape.

"He's a great player. He's our leader," U of L's Clark said. "When we needed the big shots, he delivered."

Though Siena had erased all of a 12-point Louisville second-half lead to go up four — and forced Pitino to use three timeouts trying to stop the Saints from marching in — Williams said he did not deliberately take over the game.

"I'm not saying 'We're down by four, I have to shoot it,'" he said of his in-game thought process. "Coach P said he wanted me to go to the glass, so I did and got the putback. We ran a play (on his crucial three-point bucket) and I was open, so I shot it. My mind-set was just playing basketball."

The basketball Williams played Sunday bore absolutely no resemblance to that produced by the shaky sophomore who went scoreless with five turnovers in his first NCAA game (against Stanford) in 2006.

Neither did his final numbers. In 38 minutes, he had 24 points, 15 rebounds and four assists and hit all but two of his six three-point attempts.

The Louisville coach read Williams' stat line out loud in the post-game news conference.

"That's gigantic," Pitino said. "And he did it playing 38 minutes in a hard system (in which to play). I'm very proud of Terrence. He's a special young man."

There are two ways to look at the fact that Louisville was in position against Siena to need to be rescued in the first place.

You could see warning bells. Charting the shooting percentage of Louisville's four-headed guard rotation — Andre McGee, Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Preston Knowles — is usually a pretty good barometer on how the Cardinals will fare.

In U of L's five losses this season, the main guards shot roughly 33 percent from the floor.

Against Siena, those four were 6-for-19 — and one of the makes was a desperation, 30-foot heave by Knowles that beat an expiring shot clock.

The level of guard play the Cardinals had Sunday night will not lead to cutting down nets in Detroit on the final Monday night of the college basketball season.

On the other hand, in the NCAA Tournament, a team that has looked down the barrel of defeat and survived tends to become dangerous moving ahead.

U of L certainly did that here.

Next up for the Cardinals will be underachieving but talented Arizona, the Midwest's No. 12 seed, in the NCAA round of 16.

As for Sunday night, had it not been for Terrence Williams, the sighs coming from Pitino — and everyone else who swears allegiance to Cardinals red — would have been in sadness. Not relief.