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March 22, 2012
PHOENIX No. 4 seed Louisville advanced to the Elite Eight by knocking off No. 1 seed Michigan State 57-44 Thursday night. The Cardinals didn't just beat Michigan State, they crushed the Spartans just like they've been crushing doubters and critics since the post-season began.
Rewind to early March. Louisville, falling out of the top 25, lost to USF and Syracuse to end the regular-season with a 22-9 record. The Cardinals lost four of their final six games and were taken to overtime by DePaul.
Then Rick Pitino, up for the Hall of Fame this season, told local media his team would come home from New York with the Big East title.
Media scoffed, critics laughed and even some Louisville fans shook their heads in disbelief. Then the Cardinals took the court and looked like a completely new team for the post-season. With new adidas infraRED jerseys, a renewed commitment to running and pressing and a fierce competitiveness fueled by doubters' statements, the Cardinals reeled off wins over Seton Hall, Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati.
Pitino was right. His team answered his call and brought home the trophy from the toughest conference tournament in all of college basketball.
"We love proving doubters wrong," senior guard Chris Smith said. "We are going to keep proving people wrong. I think we have all our fans back now, though."
The fans did come back, joining their team on the wild ride through the Big East Tournament. Entering the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest No. 4 seeds in the dance, Louisville beat formerly hot-shooting Davidson and topped Mountain West champ New Mexico in the second round.
Then the doubters came back. Michigan State was too tough and too physical, the TV analysts said. Their defense was too good. Wrong.
"We knew they had a reputation as a tough team, but we played as physical as they did," junior guard Peyton Siva said. "Gorgui (Dieng) and Chane (Behanan) did a great job on the boards and in the paint."
[ Photos: Louisville knocks off top-seeded Michigan State ]
"We are better than them on defense," Smith said.
The Spartans knocked off Louisville in 2009 and Tom Izzo has Pitino's number, the pundits said. Wrong.
"He's 10-0," senior Kyle Kuric said when asked about Pitino's record in the Sweet 16. "I know that number really well. He's 10-0. I'm glad I can say that and not 9-1."
Michigan State star Draymond Green added more fuel to Louisville's fire when he made comments that ruffled a few Cardinal feathers early in the week. He said the Spartans ran the Cardinals out of the gym in 2009 and they know exactly what Louisville is going to try to do with the press.
"Yeah, that was a source of motivation for us because nobody (should) talk down on us, really," Smith said. "You are a No. 1 seed, but that means nothing to us. We won the Big East Championship and that is the toughest championship you can win outside the NCAA championship so we know what we can do."
[ Shop: Get your Louisville Sweet 16 Gear ]
"What he said is (for) him. That is what he thinks," sophomore center Gorgui Dieng said. "When I read what he said, I said 'Guys we need to prove him wrong. We need to have people respect us.' "
If Louisville didn't earn Green's respect Thursday night, it never will. The Cardinals held Michigan State to 28.6 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers. Green scored 13 and had 16 rebounds, but he missed 11 of 16 shots and had six turnovers.
Louisville out-rebounded Michigan State and held the Spartans to just 44 points. In a game of toughness and defense, Louisville proved to be tougher and better defenders.
"They are a good basketball team," Dieng said. "But I like the way we keep playing. People don't give us credit all the time, but I like my team."
And now the Cardinals are one win from a Final Four, an amazing statement for many who counted the Cardinals out a long time ago.
"We just have to keep focused and keep playing our style of basketball," sophomore Russ Smith said.
And keep proving doubters wrong.