Sunday, March 25, 2012

Peyton Siva and Louisville Storms Back Late Against Florida and Into Final Four

PHOENIX — Peyton Siva Sr. stood in the front row at the US Airways Center, clad in his lucky jersey, the black one — Louisville, No. 3. The stains on the jersey told the story of the Cardinals’ last eight games, all victories, many of them upsets.

Coach Rick Pitino of Louisville looked on as the Cardinals fought their way back from a sizable deficit against Florida.

The latest came on Saturday, as fourth-seeded Louisville fell behind seventh-seeded Florida in the West Region final of the N.C.A.A. tournament, only to storm back, only to rob the elder Siva of his voice and fill his eyes with tears. After a 72-68 victory catapulted the Cardinals into the Final Four, he spread both arms as wide as the court itself, waving a Louisville flag.

Siva said he started to wear the jersey when Louisville entered the Big East tournament, wore it through the Cardinals’ conference championship, wore it through three rounds of the N.C.A.A. tournament, then wore it again Saturday. Louisville won each of those games, behind his son, his namesake, the child who once stopped him from committing suicide.

“Same jersey,” Peyton Siva Sr. said.

He later clarified.

“Yes, I washed it.”

Perhaps 30 feet away, Peyton Siva Jr. ascended a ladder and began to snip at the net with scissors. He cut one piece for himself, another for a teammate, and he did this for five minutes, cutting the net into pieces, distributing to the end.

Then he descended the ladder and hugged Russ Smith, the guard who saved him and the Cardinals’ season Saturday.

Smith, like Coach Rick Pitino, is from New York, and the way he plays, awesome one minute, awful the next, has long driven Pitino crazy. Pitino even gave Smith a nickname recently. He called him Russ-diculous.

Louisville spent much of the second half here in foul trouble, and Siva picked up his fifth foul with nearly four minutes left in the game. His father yelled at Smith from the stands. “Pick it up, Russ!” Siva Sr. shouted. “Your brother needs you!”

The Cardinals (30-9) trailed for much of the contest, but Smith and forward Chane Behanan led them back. With 1 minute 6 seconds remaining, Behanan backed into the lane and dropped a turnaround jumper for a 69-68 lead.

Smith would grab a rebound, turn the ball back over and make two free throws in the final minute. It was a typically maddening performance. Florida (26-11), which made 8 of 11 3-pointers in the first half but none of 9 from behind the arc in the second, took two shots to tie the score.

Both missed.

Siva walked near the Louisville contingent in the stands, looking for his father, a West Region championship hat cocked sideways atop his head. His father kept saying the same thing. “Final Four, baby!”

Pitino and the Cardinals stood atop a stage for the usual postgame ceremony. Pitino stood with Gorgui Dieng, the center whose seven blocks lifted Louisville past top-seeded Michigan State in the regional semifinal. Pitino stood with Kyle Kuric, the senior forward who gathered and calmed his teammates after Pitino received a technical foul in the second half and Behanan later admitted: “I’m not going to lie. I thought it was over after that.”

For Pitino, the win elicited elation and heartbreak all at once. For years, he counted the 1986-87 Providence Friars among his favorite teams. They reached the Final Four behind a guard named Billy Donovan, who shed some 30 pounds and carried Providence to New Orleans.

Donovan followed Pitino into coaching, even gave up a job on Wall Street to join Pitino at Kentucky. Donovan later won two national championships at Florida, the same Florida that Louisville and Pitino met on Saturday.

“Outside of my six children, this is the happiest day of my life,” Pitino said, but added later that he felt for Donovan because “Florida outplayed us.”

Florida shot, literally, to a 41-33 advantage at halftime. The Gators, who ranked among the most accurate of the country’s 3-point teams, made long-distance shots look like layups because almost all of them went in. Louisville’s typically stingy defense, which held Davidson to 35 percent shooting and New Mexico to 56 points, which allowed all of 44 to the mighty Spartans, suddenly looked vulnerable, average, human.

But Louisville tends to wear down opponents, and by game’s end, Florida had turned the ball over 14 times. Smith brought the Cardinals back; his 3-pointer from the right corner and subsequent teardrop shot in the lane pulled Louisville to within a point, 65-64. Then Siva picked up his final foul and Pitino — and Siva Sr. — turned to his replacement.

“I was actually pretty nervous,” Smith admitted later. “It could have potentially cost us the season.”

It did not, ultimately, because Smith made more good plays than bad ones, because Pitino coaxed a sixth team (from three universities) into a Final Four and, of course, because Peyton Siva Sr. wore his lucky jersey. Stains and all.

A version of this article appeared in print on March 25, 2012, on page SP5 of the New York edition with the headline: Louisville Storms Back Late Against Florida and Into Final Four.

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