NEW YORK -- The Big Apple didn’t get to see its hometown team play in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday night.
Louisville versus Villanova was a pretty darn good consolation prize.
No, the game wasn’t a nailbiter. In fact, it was all but over midway through the second half. But a packed house at Madison Square Garden got to watch a national championship contender at the absolute peak of its powers.
Villanova, which took out St. John’s 24 hours earlier to earn a spot in the quarters and had beaten Louisville in late January, was no match for Rick Pitino’s club this night, falling 74-55.
“We lost last time around for three reasons,” Pitino said. “We missed free throws, didn’t guard the 3-point line, and didn’t cause enough havoc. Tonight we did all three.”
“Havoc” doesn’t nearly do it justice. Louisville led by only nine at the half, 30-21, but it felt like a lot more. That’s what happens when you watch a team commit 18 turnovers in just 20 minutes.
“I think we were just very intense,” Pitino said. “We were really quick. We’re fast.”
Villanova committed only seven more turnovers in the second half. But the Cardinals stepped it up at the other end. After shooting just 35.7 percent (10-for-28) before the break, the Cardinals made 54.2 percent (13-for-24) in the second half -- led by senior guard Russ Smith, who poured in 21 of his game-high 28 points after intermission.
“Their guards completely dominated the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The game was allowed to be played very physical. It was very fair. We just did not respond to the physical play. That’s what happens -- you turn the ball over like that.”
Smith, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., dedicated his performance to his former high school coach at Archbishop Molloy, the legendary Jack Curran, whose death at the age of 82 was announced earlier in the day.
Smith admitted shedding tears when he heard the news. “It was almost heartbreaking to think about it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to win and do anything I could to win.”
Pitino, whose team was already second in the country in steals per game, loved the forced turnover total. But he loved another stat even more: 58 defensive deflections, according to Louisville’s calculations. That’s the most a Pitino-coached team has ever collected in a single game, even during his stints in the NBA.
“It was an incredible thing to witness,” Pitino said.
Last March, Louisville arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of six to end the regular season. But they ended up winning this tournament as the No. 7 seed, and going all the way to the Final Four.
This year, the Cardinals got a head-start. They’ve now won eight games in a row, a streak that began in mid-February.
Villanova had probably already done enough to sneak into the NCAA tournament field as an at-large. But Louisville is shooting for a No. 1 seed.
“This team could win a national championship,” Wright said, of Louisville.
So if New Yorkers are looking for a team to root for in the Big Dance next week -- besides Cinderellas Iona and LIU Brooklyn -- Louisville is a prime candidate.
After all, Pitino is a New York City native and one-time coach of the Knicks. And Smith, a first-team All-Big East performer, is certainly doing his hometown proud.
But as for the rest of the country? Beware.
The Cardinals are picking up some serious steam. You don't want to see them on your side of the bracket.