PHOENIX — Once upon a time, Billy Donovan took Rick Pitino on an improbable ride to the Final Four.
Twenty-five years later, Pitino is heading back after another unbelievable run — one capped by an amazing late-game rally that left his protege wondering what the heck happened.
Freshman forward Chane Behanan made the go-ahead basket with 1:06 to play Saturday, and Pitino’s fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals limited Florida to three points in the final 8:16 to gain a 72-68 victory in the West Region final.
And all Pitino could think afterward was, “Hate to do that to ya, kid.”
“Tonight, it was very difficult because of the way the game ended, because they outplayed us for 32 minutes,” Pitino said. “And it really hurt inside. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching.”
Russ Smith, who finished with 19 points, followed Behanan’s bucket with two free throws, and then Florida freshman Bradley Beal and teammate Kenny Boynton each missed shots to tie in the final seconds.
Louisville made one more free throw to seal the outcome and reach its ninth Final Four, the second under Pitino, despite playing the final 3:58 without point guard Peyton Siva, who fouled out.
Seventh-seeded Florida (26-11) went out in a region final for the second straight year, with Donovan falling to 0-7 against the man who coached him on that Final Four team at Providence in 1987, hired him as an assistant at Kentucky a few years later and felt as proud as a papa when he watched Donovan win his two national titles in 2006 and 2007.
“For myself, I don’t think any of us like losing,” Donovan said. “But if someone said to me, ‘You have to lose a game, who would it be to?’ I would say him.”
Louisville will take an eight-game winning streak on its trip to New Orleans. Awaiting is a possible matchup with Pitino’s old school, Kentucky, which will have to get past Baylor today to set up a grudge match to end them all.
“We think they’re great. I coached there. It’s great. Great tradition,” Pitino said. “But we want to be Louisville. We have a different mission. They have a different mission. But we both want to get to a Final Four and win a championship.”
This game had a much more warm-and-fuzzy storyline than that possible Bluegrass State matchup — a meeting between two men who say theirs is more of a father-son relationship than anything else.
But this was no heartwarmer.
Donovan got under Pitino’s skin early in the second half during a timeout when he worked over the officials, who promptly called a foul against the Cardinals (30-9) when play resumed.
“He called that,” Pitino shouted to the ref. “Why don’t you just give him a whistle?”
Pitino couldn’t get a break for a while after that, and when Siva picked up his fourth foul, the coach stomped onto the court and got hit with a technical. Erving Walker made four straight free throws, and the Gators led by 11, setting the stage for what could have been Donovan’s fourth trip to the Final Four.
But the team that shot 8 of 11 from 3-point range in the first half went cold, not hitting any of nine attempts from beyond the arc in the second.
The Gators missed six shots and committed one turnover over the last 2:30. They didn’t score after Boynton’s layup gave them a 68-66 lead with 2:39 left. They finished with 14 turnovers to six for Louisville — probably the difference in a game in which they outshot Louisville 50 percent to 45.
“What happens is, you can’t lose confidence,” Pitino said. “I kept telling our guys we’re going to the Final Four. Win the Big East tournament, we’re going to the Final Four. And they did.”
The game’s best freshman on this day wasn’t Beal, but rather Behanan, who was far less heralded than the Florida star coming out of high school.
Behanan, a Cincinnati product, scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, including nine over the last 8:02 and Louisville’s last two field goals — both after Siva had fouled out with nine points and eight assists.
Beal matched Erik Murphy with a team-high 14 points and controlled the game for the first 37 minutes.
But over the last three, he twice tried to take the ball to the hoop, only to be denied by 6-foot-11-inch center Gorgui Dieng. Beal missed the desperation 3 in the waning seconds and also got called for traveling after stealing a wild pass from Smith while Louisville was nursing a one-point lead with 18 seconds left.