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March 24, 2012Florida seemed to hit every shot it put up in the first half and still had a big lead even after the makes were a little harder to come by in the second.
Finally, it appeared, Billy Donovan was going to beat his mentor.
Instead, the Gators couldn't hold it together, sending their coach home from the desert with the most disappointing of his seven losses to Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Florida blew an 11-point lead in the second half and couldn't convert on numerous chances down the stretch, blowing a shot at another Final Four with a 72-68 loss to Louisville on Saturday in the West Regional final.
"Certainly, emotionally going into the game it's always a difficult situation like that, with our relationship, but I don't think any coach enjoys losing in this type of situation," Donovan said. "But if I had to lose, it would have to be him, to have him toward the end of his career to enjoy this experience."
Donovan had done his best to escape the shadow of Pitino, his former coach and boss, winning a pair of national championships and making three trips to the Final Four.
When it came to beating the old man, he hadn't been able to do it, losing in six previous tries, including two Louisville-Florida matchups.
In easily their biggest meeting, Donovan appeared to have the upper hand on his mentor, the Gators playing in his old Billy the Kid image, hitting eight 3-pointers and shooting 66 percent in the first half against one of the nation's best defenses.
Even when the perimeter shots started clanging-0-for-9 from beyond the arc in the second half-Florida (26-11) still had a 58-47 lead with just under 11 minutes left.
Then it started going horribly wrong.
Louisville (30-9) went on a 10-0 run to get within 1 and kept rolling. Florida couldn't stop the Cardinals, particularly Chane Behanan inside, and missed six shots with a turnover over the final 2:39.
Instead of a trip to New Orleans and the Final Four, the Gators were headed back to Tallahassee, wondering how what seemed like such a comfortable lead got away from them.
Brad Beal and Erik Murphy had 14 points each to lead Florida.
"It feels terrible," said Florida's Erving Walker, who had 12 points. "I mean, we had a lead, we gave it up late. We just didn't make shots and didn't defend them."
Donovan has a tight relationship with Pitino that goes back 25 years, when the fire-at-will guard led Providence and coach Pitino to an improbable run to the Final Four. Donovan reluctantly agreed when Pitino asked him to dress up as Billy the Kid for the team program-complete with cowboy hat and spurs-and became close to Pitino's son, Richard, who used to sit on his lap when he was barely out of diapers and is now the associate head coach under his father.
Rick Pitino also gave Donovan his first coaching job while he was at Kentucky.
Mentor and protege had met six times before and Pitino won all of those, though it had more to do with the talent level of the teams than anything Donovan was lacking as a coach.
Never before had they met with so much at stake and with so many emotions on the line.
Louisville reached the brink of its 10th Final Four appearance by overcoming a late-season stumble to win four games in four days for the Big East tournament championship. The Cardinals opened the NCAA tournament with wins over Davidson and New Mexico, then grinded out a win over top-seeded Michigan State in the regional semifinals behind Gorgui Dieng's seven blocked shots.
Florida had a similar sputtering finish in the regular season and lost to Kentucky in the SEC tournament, then rolled over Virginia and Norfolk State in the first two rounds of the NCAAs. The Gators followed with an impressive win over Marquette in the regional semifinals after Beal displayed some of his NBA-worthy talents.
That set up what figured to be a sizzler in the desert, two like-mindedly up-tempo teams that love to play defense and jack up 3-pointers.
And it lived up to the billing.
Louisville had been good at defending the 3 all season, holding teams to 30 percent while ranking third nationally in overall defense at 37 percent. But the Cardinals had a hard time finding Florida's shooters in the first half, allowing the Gators to hit 8 of 11 3-point shots and shoot 14 of 21 overall.
Louisville tightened up on the perimeter to open the second half and the Gators had no answer, missing one 3-pointer after another.
Even without getting shots to drop from long range, Florida seemed to be comfortably ahead after Pitino was called for a technical foul and Kenny Boynton, who had 12 points, hit four free throws to put the Gators up 11.
"We knew they were going to make a run at some point, they're a great team, Louisville," Walker said. "We thought we had control of it and we thought we'd be able to keep them at bay."
He was right, Louisville did come charging back, but the Gators didn't have an answer.
The Cardinals pulled within 65-64 after their 10-0 run and, even after point guard Peyton Siva fouled out with 3:58 left, kept coming at the Gators, who kept misfiring.
Boynton scored on a layup with 2:39 left, but Beal had a shot blocked by Dieng, another by Behanan and had a turnover with 18 seconds left and the Gators trailing by one. Russ Smith, who led Louisville with 19 points, hit two free throws at the other end to make it 71-68, then Boynton missed a 3-pointer.
Louisville's Wayne Blackshear sealed it by hitting 1 of 2 free throws with 3 seconds left, sending Florida to its second straight loss in the regional finals and Donovan to the most frustrating of his losses to Pitino.
Still, once it was over, mentor and protege embraced at midcourt, their deep-rooted relationship not about to be tarnished by one emotionally-charged game.
"(As we) walked out, I said to Billy, `I feel bad, I feel terrible, man,"' said Pitino, who likened Donovan to a seventh child. "He said, `Are you kidding me, coach? I am so happy for you.' That just didn't happen in this world."