LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Following Louisville's 55-52 loss at Georgetown on Saturday, a defeat that handed the Hoyas the Big East regular-season title, several Cardinals scurried for the team bus rather than talk to reporters.
When coach Rick Pitino saw the locker room empty, he angrily told a team manager to order the players off the bus so they could answer the kind of questions they hadn't heard during the nine-game winning streak that propelled the Cardinals to the top of the conference.
The way Pitino sees it, if Louisville wants to make a run in the NCAA tournament, his team better be prepared to play under the microscope.
``Everything is so exposed and the players get in front of the media and it's now hundreds of media people sitting out there and they're getting questions and they know it's different,'' Pitino said.
Pitino hopes the reality check pays dividends down the road for the 13th-ranked Cardinals (24-7, 14-4 Big East), who will be the second seed when the conference tournament begins at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Louisville plays the winner of a first-round game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the quarterfinals on Thursday night.
``It was tough trying to beat Georgetown at Georgetown on Senior Night, but it's a lot tougher winning the Big East tournament than it is that one game,'' Pitino said.
To do it, the Cardinals will likely need to beat at least two Top 25 teams, a scenario that Pitino said is harder than anything most teams face in the first two or three rounds of the NCAA tournament.
It's a road that got just a little harder after losing to the Hoyas.
Louisville had three chances to tie it in the final seconds, none better than a wide-open 3-pointer by Jerry Smith with 25 seconds remaining. The ball clanged harmlessly off the rim, the final note in an 0-for-7 night for the team's best shooter.
Yet rather than moan about missed opportunities - he figures the mild grilling the players endured following the game was enough - Pitino instead tried to find some positives he wants the Cardinals to build on heading into the Big East tournament.
``There are some silver linings in every loss, because we had David Padgett play his poorest game this year, Jerry Smith played his poorest game of the year,'' Pitino said. ``Edgar (Sosa) was OK, (Juan Palacios) didn't play particularly well and we still almost won the game.''
Smith's heave seemed improbable early in the second half after the Cardinals fell behind by 11. On their heels for the first time in more than a month, Pitino challenged his players during a timeout.
``I said this can go one of two ways, you're going to know about yourselves right now,'' Pitino said. ``This can go to 20 and this game could be over, you could get your first blowout performance in awhile, or you could come back and take the lead.''
The Cardinals responded with a desperate run that culminated in a 3-pointer by Terrence Williams that put them up 51-50 with 3:38 remaining.
``They fought back and they turned it around,'' Pitino said.
Still, it wasn't enough thanks to 10-for-18 shooting at the free-throw line and 4-for-18 shooting from 3-point range.
Pitino isn't too worried about his team's 3-point shooting, the Cardinals have been streaky all year. The free-throw shooting, however, is cause for alarm. Louisville is making just 65 percent of its shots at the line, a number that will need to go up if the Cardinals want to make it to the Final Four for the second time in four years.
``I am concerned, it is a factor, but I don't think it's a major factor in the game for us,'' Pitino said. ``I don't think we'll make 80 percent, but I think we're capable of shooting it in the low-70s.''
The loss means the Cardinals will likely need to win Big East tournament to have any shot at capturing a No. 2 seed when the NCAA tournament begins next week. Yet even if his team stumbles in New York, Pitino isn't worried about its ability to bounce back.
After an injury-filled nonconference schedule left some wondering if the Cardinals would even make the NCAAs, Pitino considers his team nearly unflappable.
``This team has been battle-tested, they've been road-tested,'' Pitino said. ``They've been through every type of adversity you can have in a team and they've come through with shining colors.''
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