But the real life-saver in the Cardinals’ win never left the bench.
Rick Pitino has an NCAA title ring in his jewelry box and is the only coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four. Still, in a roundabout way, what Pitino has done at Louisville the past few seasons is as impressive as any feat on the future Hall of Famer's résumé.
One year after leading a team with a glaring talent deficiency to a 25-win season and a third-place finish in the Big East, Pitino has the Cardinals off to a 7-0 start despite a list of injuries that would cause most programs to wilt.
McDonald’s All-American Wayne Blackshear has yet to play because of a shoulder injury. Mike Marra is done for the season with a torn ACL. Rakeem Buckles is working his way back from knee surgery, while Elisha Justice (broken nose) and Stephan Van Treese (knee) are out indefinitely.
Yet here are the Cardinals, undefeated and ranked sixth in the country.
“Never have I had as much fun coaching as I have the last two years,” Pitino said. “This team epitomizes everything you want in a team in terms of rooting for each other and not giving up.”
The reason for Louisville’s resolve is simple.
“We’re a reflection of our coach,” Siva said.
Indeed, it was a only a few years ago when some college basketball fans were calling for Pitino to resign following a messy off-court situation in which he was accused of impregnating a woman and then paying for her to have an abortion.
Still, rather than walking away from the game in shame, Pitino surged forward. Instead of floundering in the face of adversity, he flourished.
“We’re never going to give up,” Siva said. “Whether we’re out there with broken legs or broken noses or hands or whatever, we’re going to go out there and play for our coach. He puts so much hard work into practice and hard work into us. This is our time to show that we’re going to battle for him.”
The Cardinals’ talent level hasn’t been as high lately as it’s been in the past. Terrence Williams and Earl Clark were both NBA draft lottery picks in 2009, but since that time Louisville hasn’t had many NBA-caliber players on its roster.
While the situation might not speak all that well for Pitino’s recent accomplishments on the recruiting trail, it’s magnified his prowess on the sideline. No team in the country has made so much out of so little the past few seasons.
Louisville is counting on its fortunes changing as players such as Buckles and freshman Kevin Ware -- who becomes eligible Dec. 14 -- work their way into the rotation. Blackshear could be back by late January.
In the meantime, Louisville is achieving success thanks to a menacing defense and an aggressive mindset that allows it to fight back just as victories seem to be slipping away. Last season, the Cardinals won six games by five points or fewer. Three of its victories were in overtime.
“We’ve been winning close games the past two years,” Pitino said. “So I don’t think we have to learn, because we learned last year. It’s a treat to coach this team because you see so many great comebacks. There are times when you think they are dead, and then you just look up and we win the game.”
Friday was one of those occasions.
The Cardinals trailed by nine with less than eight minutes remaining and by six with less than four minutes remaining before battling back to force overtime against the 19th-ranked Commodores. Vanderbilt appeared to have the momentum after jumping out to a 55-50 lead early in the extra period, but Louisville fought right back and took a 58-57 lead on Kuric’s 3-pointer from the left corner with one minute left.
A pair of free throws by Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins made it 60-60 with 12 seconds left. That’s when Siva took the inbounds pass, jogged up the court and blew by two defenders on his way to the game-winning layup with 1.2 seconds remaining on the clock.
“I just wanted to go jump in the crowd or something,” Siva said. “I was saying, ‘God, thank you for letting me make that shot -- but please don’t let them hit a buzzer-beater from half court.’ ”
Instead, the Commodores never got off a shot, and a wild celebration ensued as the final horn sounded. Beaming from ear to ear near the sideline was Louisville’s 59-year-old head coach.
More than 600 wins and three decades since beginning his career, Pitino has never looked better.