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March 7, 2013

The most important regular-season game in a decade?




The University of Louisville basketball team has played hundreds of meaningful basketball games during its 101-year hoops history, but none in Louisville that were bigger than Saturday's battle with No. 24 Notre Dame (23-7, 11-6).

That's the gospel according to coach Rick Pitino, who calls the 4 p.m. nationally-televised encounter (CBS) in the KFC Yum! Center "the most important game we've ever played at home in modern times for a variety of reasons."

It would be difficult to argue with him because there is certainly plenty at stake, with a record crowd possible for the Cardinals' final regular-season game.

Foremost, of course, No. 8/6 UofL (25-5, 13-4) will be seeking its first Big East championship since 2009. No. 5 Georgetown's 67-57 loss at Villanova Wednesday night put the Cards in a three-way tie for first place with the Hoyas and Marquette. A win over Notre Dame would give UofL at least a share of just its second title since joining the conference in 2005-06.

The Cards need a victory, coupled with a loss by Georgetown against slumping Syracuse (23-7, 11-6) in Washington, D.C., to earn the No. 1 seed in next week's Big East Tournament. In case of a deadlock for first the Hoyas would win the tie-breaker by virtue of their 53-51 win over Louisville. UofL holds the tie-breaker against No. 15//17 Marquette (22-7, 13-4), which finishes the regular season at St. John's 16-13, 8-9) Saturday afternoon. The Cards will know the outcome of the Georgetown-Syracuse game before they take the court against the Irish because it tips off at noon.

Then there are the ramifications of March Madness and postseason momentum. UofL has won six in a row since its historic 104-101 five-overtime loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 9 and has positioned itself for at least a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and could possibly contend for a No. 1 seed with a strong finish.

The game also marks Senior Day during which senior guard Peyton Siva, junior center Gorgui Dieng and former player Mike Marra will be honored. Although Dieng has another year of eligibility, he will toss his name into the hat for the NBA draft and Pitino expects him to be a first-round pick.

"We're playing for a championship, which you don't normally get," Pitino says. "And we're saying goodbye to two really, really special young men. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng epitomize what you would want in a student-athlete in all regards.

"The way they lace it up every day and step over the lines and practice as if it's their first practice ever, their enthusiasm, their naive innocence when it comes to life, their love for the University of Louisville, love of their teammates and coaching staff. In today's world of egotisical athletes that come along, here you have the polar opposites."

Marra, a senior, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason and has not played. He wants to be a coach and has helped out wherever he could this year. Pitino said Marra will be the honoree coach against the Irish. He'll take Pitino's seat on the bench, call a couple of timeouts during the game, "and if we lose, it's his fault."

And to add to the emotional setting, this will be UofL's final home game in the Big East. With the departure of the Catholic 7 to form their own league, the Big East will reportedly be named the America 12 Conference. The Cards will play in that league next season before moving to the ACC.

If past UofL-Notre Dame games are any indication, it will be a long afternoon in the Yum! Center. Six of their last eight games have gone into overtime, with each team winning three.

In the first meeting, UofL held an eight-point lead heading into the final 45 seconds of regulation before Jerian Grant scored 12 straight points -- on a trio of 3-pointers and an old-fashioned 3-point play -- to force the first overtime. Then the Cards couldn't cash in on numerous opportunities the rest of the way.

"They have the ability to make tough shots," Pitino says. "What they did (in South Bend). . .we were playing great defense, everything was going along and they weren't shooting particularly well. Then all of a sudden they're making shots they pulled out of nowhere. We have developed a great rivalry with Notre Dame and Syracuse, where it's very respectful. The players get along, the coaches get along and they're always fun, passionate games."

But Louisville forward Chane Behanan says the Cards have had their fill of extra sessions and are determined that this time will be different and the proceedings will be wrapped up in 40 minutes.

"No overtimes," Behanan said. "Finish the game and get the job done."


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