Louisville knocks off Spartans
PHOENIX (AP) — Louisville figured its game against Michigan State to be low-scoring, a natural expectation with two of the nation’s best defenses butting heads.
The Cardinals had one big advantage: Gorgui Dieng.
Dominating inside, Dieng blocked seven shots and altered several others to anchor a stifling defense that helped Louisville knock off top-seeded Michigan State 57-44 Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals.
“”He was very disruptive,” Michigan State’s Draymond Green said. “We’re not going to back down from anyone. We took it at him. He pulled off some great blocked shots. That’s what he does. That’s his strength.”
The Cardinals (29-9) relied on 3-point shooting in the first half and moved inside in the second to befuddle the Spartans.
Their defense gave Michigan State fits all night.
Instead of trapping like it normally does, Louisville played a bait-and-switch game with the Spartans and Green, their multitalented forward. The idea was to jump out on screens and to make the Spartans work on every possession and, hopefully, wear them out.
It worked, in large part because Dieng was in the back to clean things up.
Tent-pole thin when he arrived at Louisville, the Senegalese center worked hard on his body and his game, developing into the one player the Cardinals had to have on the floor during his sophomore season. When he got in foul trouble, Louisville labored, so one of the key parts of coach Rick Pitino’s game plan was to make sure the Cardinals protected him.
They did and he protected the rim in return, getting five of his blocked shots in the second half to prevent Michigan State from mounting any kind of rally. The Cardinals play in the West final against Florida on Saturday.
“When we came here, we know (what) we’re going to face,” said Dieng, who also had five points, nine rebounds and three steals while matching the school record for blocked shots in an NCAA tournament game. “We knew we were going to come to a war. We need to be tougher than them to win this game.”
Michigan State (29-8) started slow and never got going against Louisville’s amoebic defense.
The Spartans got shots they wanted and usually make, but couldn’t get many to fall against Dieng or anyone else, shooting 28 percent while being outscored 20-14 inside by the leaner Cardinals.
Green had 13 points and 16 rebounds in his final game for Michigan State. Brandon Wood added 14 points for the Spartans, who were outscored 17-4 off the bench.
“They disrupted us a little bit and we didn’t have enough guys who could play well,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
This sweet matchup of top programs featured two of college basketball’s best short-preparation coaches.
Pitino has used his speed-the-opponent-up system to reach the Final Four five times, becoming the first coach to lead three different schools to the national semifinals. Once past the NCAA tournament’s first week, he’s had a knack for guiding his team further along the bracket, going 10-0 in the regional semifinals.
Izzo has spent his 17 years at Michigan State building teams that can handle the rigors of the Big Ten or switch to greyhound mode when the opponent plays fast. He’s been as consistent as any coach in the game, leading the Spartans to the Final Four six times, including the 2000 national title, and 10 trips to the regionals round the past 15 years.
Izzo played the right hand the last time these two basketball brains met, taking the Spartans to the 2009 Final Four after they found a way to break Louisville’s pressure.
Pitino had something up his sleeve this time.
With Michigan State bogging the game down, the Cardinals struggled early, missing 12 of their first 13 shots. They snapped out of it by hitting 3s.
Russ Smith hit a pair, Jared Swopshire and Chris Smith each dropped one in and, even Dieng — 0 for 2 in his career previously — got one to go in.
Swopshire closed it out with a 3 from the corner to put the Cardinals up 23-18 at halftime. Louisville was 7 of 15 from the arc in the half, but got almost nothing inside, hitting 1 of 15 shots from two-point range.
“Our game plan was to cut off the paint,” Izzo said. “I thought we did actually a very good job of that. And yet they hit some 3’s.”
Louisville shifted gears to open the second half, getting two layups and a dunk to keep its cushion. Swopshire followed with an alley-oop to Siva for the point guard’s first points, then stole the inbound pass to set up two free throws by Russ Smith that put the Cardinals up 35-25.
Michigan State managed a short run to get within four, but Louisville used its pressure to get a couple of steals and baskets to go up 43-32. Dieng followed with a couple more swats — one on Keith Appling that sailed into the stands — to keep the Spartans at arm’s length.
“He played an exceptional game,” Pitino said.
Good enough to get Louisville into the regional final for the third time in six years, a trip to New Orleans and the Final Four within its sights.