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Playing with six, maybe more, future NBA players, the Wildcats were the overwhelming favorite to not just beat Louisville, but to win the national title.

It didn’t help that the Cardinals seemed overwhelmed by the take-the-rivalry-to-a-new-level atmosphere of the Final Four.

Out of sorts at the start, Louisville fumbled away passes, put up shots that didn’t come close to hitting the rim, let Kentucky seemingly do whatever it wanted on offense.

Siva, Louisville’s catalyst all season, was shaky early, throwing passes off teammates’ legs and missing both his shots before sitting the final 7 minutes of the first half after picking up two fouls.

Dieng was off, too, playing timidly instead of with his usual aggressiveness. He missed a two-handed dunk on an open drive down the lane and seemed unprepared whenever the ball came to him.

The rest of the team wasn’t much better, struggling to stop Kentucky on defense or to get anything to fall from anywhere.

“Just jitters,” Siva said.

Yet, with all those struggles, the Cardinals kept finding a way to keep it close.

Down 10 in the first half, they chipped it to three late. Their deficit up to 13 early in the second half, they tied it 49-all on Siva’s 3-pointer with 9 minutes left.

Pitino was a big part of it, using on-the-fly adjustments and in-huddle encouragement to help the Cardinals keep up with what is generally considered the most talented team in college basketball.

When Dieng struggled early, his coach sat knee-to-knee with him in what appeared to be a keep-your-head-up moment in the first half. He took a similar tactic with Siva and both played better in the second half, making key plays to get the Cardinals back in it.

When Kentucky made a run in the second half, Pitino called for the Cardinals to extend their pressure, creating turnovers that allowed them to fight back. He also had them switching defenses on nearly every trip _ man one possession, zone another _ to keep the Wildcats off balance.

“It was a great game plan to throw us off, just mixing it up, playing man and zone,” Kentucky’s Terrence Jones said. “We didn’t know what they were doing because they kept switching it on us.”

Louisville just ran out of steam and scheme.

Kentucky stretched the lead in the closing minutes and Davis finished it off with an emphatic dunk, sending the Cardinals back to the Bluegrass state two wins short of their goal.

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