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March 25, 2009

The dance goes on

The Cards squeak by Siena, making their way to the Sweet 16

DAYTON, Ohio — Now they’re even.

Louisville and Siena, that is.

The Cardinals narrowly escaped, 79-72, advancing to the Sweet 16. (By the by, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association owns that trademarked term, kindly granting the NCAA permission to use it.)

And there’s some history working here. The win evens the all-time series between these disparate schools at one apiece. There’s an interesting tale to all that. As if you hadn’t already guessed, here it comes:

It’s 1953. U of L coach Peck Hickman isn’t all that many years removed from taking a pay cut to abandon his coaching gig at Valley High School out on the Dixie to lead the Cards.

U of L is on the uptick. It wins the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball in 1948 over Indiana State. That school’s coached by a snotty — or is it snooty? — kid named John Wooden. The NIT is the big deal then, and the Cards make a couple of appearances. But only after Peck cleverly invites the tournament’s doyen Ned Irish to speak at his team’s basketball banquet. Wily guy, that Peck.

Hickman is still looking for more exposure back east. So he schedules this tortuous little excursion for his charges — three games in five days. During that New York death march, sandwiched by wins over Manhattan and Canisius, Louisville suffers a loss to Siena. The schools don’t hook up again until Sunday.

The tables have turned over the last half century. In 1953, Louisville needed the game with the little New York school for publicity and respect. Oh yeah, the Saints were the Indians back then, you know, so it’s not like they’ve always been pious or anything like that.

These days Siena plays the county fair circuit for nickels and dimes. As the top seed, Louisville is the Monster of the Midway we like to call March Madness.

So Sunday’s matchup was a big game for Siena, a school hoping to move up the hoops food chain. Kind of like you know who, you know when. Plus, it’s big for the locals whose eyes are on the big prize.

(Truth be told, those Siena folks aren’t so saintly. I’m sitting in front of Margaret McCaffery during the game. The coach’s wife is a looker, but oh my, she’s got some lungs. She’s all over the refs the whole 40 minutes. Bellowing at Samardo Samuels, she shouts, “You big thug,” while holding one of her little kids.)

The Cards persevere and prevail, winning by seven points. But it’s a closer game than that. A lot closer.

Siena still has that 1989 tourney win over third-seeded Stanford to cherish. It’s not only the Cardinal they beat that season. The school was under quarantine at the time due to a measles epidemic on campus. Plus they got that win over Vandy in last year’s Dance to hang a hat on. With Fran McCaffery in charge, they have a future.

What Louisville’s got is the here and now.

For sure, the Cards survive and advance. Not a lot of style points Sunday, but you know what, we’re not talking the tango championships. This is a Dance where most points win. Live to play another day.

This Cardinal team does just that. The Cards fumble, stumble and bumble. But at crunch time, they git ’er done.

At least so far.

It’s not like they’ve put it all together yet in this tournament.

They go up 14 in the first half, but only lead by seven at halftime. The Cards are ahead 59-51 with 12:04 to play. A nightmare envelops the arena.

The game turns ugly. Real ugly.

Turnover Williams. Turnover Sosa. Turnover McGee. Timeout Pitino. Turnover McGee. Timeout Pitino. Turnover Clark. Then another by Clark. Timeout Pitino.

There’s now 7:49 to play. Siena tallies 12 straight points. The scoreboard reads 59-63, their favor.

During the 7:20 media timeout, maintenance takes the opportunity of the break in play to mop several buckets of Cardinal blood off the hardwood. In the huddle, The Rick goes Florence Nightingale, applies tourniquets.

Cardinaldom ensues.

Terrence Williams transcends. He confirms his standing as one of the all-time U of L greats. Putback T-Will. 61-63. Threeball T-Will. 64-63. Layup Samuels. It’s 66-63. Steal T-Will. Layup T-Will. It’s 68-63. Media timeout.

The Red & Black faithful exhale.

Great teams find a way. They win important games when they shouldn’t.

That’s what happened last Sunday.

Louisville wills its way to play another day.

You can read more on c d kaplan’s sports blog at score.leoweekly.com, which is updated daily and will include reports from the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.