- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Rick Pitino still roots for Providence, the team he led to the Final Four more than 22 years ago. He likens the program to his alma mater, and still considers it his first big break in the coaching profession.

If the Friars were playing anybody else Thursday, Pitino surely would have cringed.

Instead, he watched the Friars nearly match a Big East tournament record with 26 turnovers, and his fifth-ranked Louisville Cardinals eventually find their own offensive rhythm in a sloppy 73-55 quarterfinal victory.

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“We do a very good job of moving the ball and defending,” said Pitino, whose Cardinals advanced to play either No. 21 Marquette or No. 10 Villanova in Friday night’s semifinals.

Earl Clark had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and freshman center Samardo Samuels added 22 points for the top seed and regular-season conference champions, who’ve won eight straight and are trying to show the NCAA selection committee that they’re deserving of a No. 1 seed.

The Cardinals (26-5) have won 18 of their last 20 overall, including five wins over ranked teams, highlighted by a 69-63 victory over then-No. 1 Pittsburgh. Their last loss was Feb. 12 against Notre Dame.

The Friars (19-13), meanwhile, are just hoping they get a look on Selection Sunday.

“I’m kind of like everybody else. You listen to a lot of predictions, but the one thing that those people who predict have in common is they’re not in the committee room,” said first-year coach Keno Davis, who led Drake to the NCAA tournament last season.

“When you talk about finishing in the top half of the Big East, is that enough?” Davis added. “We’ll see what happens. We’ll have our fingers crossed on Sunday and look forward to playing more basketball.”

Davis had better hope the committee looks at the Friars’ body of work _ including notable wins over Pittsburgh and Syracuse _ and not at their performance in this one.

Weyinmi Efejuku scored 17 to lead the way, but Providence’s ghastly turnover total was one shy of the tournament record set by Georgetown in 2002. Efejuku committed five of them.

Senior forward Geoff McDermott had 11 points but committed seven turnovers, and the team wound up shooting a dreadful 2-of-17 from beyond the arc. Providence finished 33.9 percent from the field overall against the nation’s 22nd-best field goal percentage defense.

“I think they’re the most aggressive defense we’ve faced, and consistently aggressive,” Efejuku said. “Forty minutes, they’re in your face.”

Guard Sharaud Curry, who hit five 3-pointers and scored 25 points in the Friars’ win over DePaul on Wednesday, was held to six points and was 1-of-6 beyond the arc.

Louisville had plenty of chances to blow the game open in the first half, at one point holding Providence to one field goal over nearly 9 1/2 minutes. During that ragged stretch, the Friars committed four straight turnovers, had one possession where they missed three straight from under the basket and airballed an open 3-point attempt.

The Friars, who average 14 turnovers, coughed the ball up 15 times in the first half alone and fell behind 34-24 at the break.

For every laughable gaffe that the Friars made, though, Louisville tried to match them.

Star forward Terrence Williams, a 41.9 percent 3-point shooter in the conference, missed his only try in the first 20 minutes. He also blew an open dunk on the Cardinals’ second possession and didn’t score in the first half.

Once the Cardinals finally stopped throwing up 3-point tries _ they finished 3-of-19 for the game _ and began looking inside, they methodically pulled away.

Leading 43-36 with about 13 minutes left, veteran guard Edgar Sosa curled in a jumper that started a 10-2 run, and Williams made his first basket with just over 9 minutes left to give Louisville its first comfortable lead.

The smaller Friars couldn’t keep up with Louisville’s athleticism, giving up a fast-break basket seemingly every time they threatened to close the gap over the last 10 minutes.

When they managed to slow the game into the half court, the 240-pound Samuels went to work inside. His emphatic jam with about 1:30 left put the signature on his best game since the second of his career, when he scored 24 points against South Alabama.

“He was good,” Pitino said. “I don’t think he did anything spectacular. I think he just stayed within the framework of teamwork and got a lot of good shots.”

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