Pitino & Louisville Leave Garden Nets Up, Aim for Atlanta


NEW YORK
— Let the record reflect that the Big East Conference as we know it officially died at 10:52 PM EST on March 16, 2013.

It ended with Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals completing a dominant second-half comeback fueled by Peyton Siva and Montrezl Harrell that swept them to their second straight Big East Tournament championship compliments of a 78-61 blowout of Syracuse after they had trailed by 16 points early in the second half.

It would have been customary and celebratory had Pitino — a native New Yorker and former coach of the Knicks — and his players ascended ladders and cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden.

But the coach instructed his team not to do so.

As Obi Wan-Kanobi might have said, these aren’t the nets he’s looking for.

Pitino and his team are looking to cut down the nets in the  Georgia Dome on April 8.

And by leaving the nets up on the same court where Pitino once signed his scholarship papers to UMass, it seemed a fitting coda to the Big East, which will never again be the same.

“I told the guys, I said, ‘Look, there are no guarantees you’re going to get out of the first round,” Pitino said of his decision to leave the nets up.

“But we cut down the nets last year so we know the feeling. So let’s see if we can do something special, and if it happens for us, it happens. If not, we didn’t miss too much because we cut it last year.”

Russ Smith, the former Archbishop Molloy standout who is playing the postseason in honor of his late high school coach Jack Curran, who passed away last week, echoed Pitino’s message.

“We want to cut down some other nets,” said Smith, who managed just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting.

“That’s the goal. It’s no disrespect to the Big East Tournament, but we have a goal and we want to reach it, so for us to keep the eye on the prize that’s kind of what we felt like we needed to do.”

Louisville (29-5) or Indiana will enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and Pitino said he expected thee Cardinals to get it.

While Indiana and Duke have already lost in their conference tournaments, Louisville throttled Syracuse, 56-26, in the second half to win their third Big East championship in five years.

Harrell, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound freshman who had never led Louisville in scoring all season, took the game over to the tune of 20 points, seven rebounds and one block.

Louisville’s bench outscored its starters, 41-37.

They certainly look like a team that could cut the nets down in Atlanta.

“We are just very happy and we just we have the Final Four coming up,” Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng , who nearly had a triple-double with nine points, nine assists and eight boards, told me as he celebrated with his teammates.

“We got the NCAA Tournament. We’re trying to get to the Final Four and win it all.”

Do you feel like you can win it all?

“Of course, if we keep playing like that, I don’t see anyone beat us,” he said. “We are ready to compete and I’m really proud of my teammates.”

Said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who was trying to make history in his final Big East Tournament game ever: “I thought they were the best team in the league from the beginning of the year and they proved that today.”

Pitino said only once in his coaching career did he enter a Final Four confident his team would cut down the nets.

That, of course, was at Kentucky in 1996 because “we had seven or eight NBA first-round picks.”

This team doesn’t have that.

It has a couple of future pros in Dieng and Smith and Siva, the first man since Patrick Ewing to win back-to-back Big East Tournament MVP awards.

What it does have is tremendous depth and a “humility” that Pitino praised.

“I think this team is very, very humble,” he said. “There’s no ego involved in this basketball team at all.”

Pitino is too savvy and experienced to make any crazy predictions at this stage.

“I’m not overly confident,” he said. “If it happens, it happens for this basketball team.”

On this historic night that marked the end of the Big East as we know it, Pitino’s actions spoke volumes.

We aren’t cutting these nets down.

These aren’t the nets we’re looking for.

Photo: Daily News

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