Florida Gators blow 11-point lead in 72-68 loss to Louisville Cardinals

By John Marshall

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 5:49 p.m. MDT

Florida players sit in the closing moments of the second half of an NCAA tournament West Regional final college basketball game against Louisville, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Phoenix. Florida lost to Louisville 72-68.

Matt York, Associated Press

PHOENIX — Florida 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 Gainesville, wondering how what seemed like such a comfortable lead got away from them.

Bradley 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.

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