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Originally published March 24, 2012 at 7:55 PM | Page modified March 24, 2012 at 9:15 PM

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Louisville sends Rick Pitino to sixth Final Four

Seattle's Peyton Siva Sr. and Jr. celebrate trip to New Orleans.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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PHOENIX — Peyton Siva Sr. waved a red and black Louisville Cardinals flag and let his enthusiasm explode.

"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" he exclaimed. "C'mon, baby! There you go, baby! There you go! There you go!"

Then the father wept. His son, Peyton Jr., the former Franklin High School star, is headed to the Final Four. And on this Saturday afternoon, after a feverish game and a spirited Cardinals comeback, you could literally feel the accomplishment. It was heavier than the epic feat of rallying to beat a Florida team that shot 67 percent in the first half. Because this was personal. This was real.

This was a father crying while celebrating a son who once saved him from drugs, alcohol and thoughts of suicide. This was a coach outlasting his pupil in a game of fabulous strategy and conflicting emotion. This was a team, hardened because of seasonlong struggle, staying together and surprising even themselves.

As Louisville celebrated a 72-68 victory over Florida in the West Region final, Siva Sr. thanked God and shouted "206 yeah!" to represent Seattle's area code and expressed the sentiment of the day.

"What a gift," Siva Sr. said. "How amazing. Incredible. God is great. I can't believe it."

The Cardinals earned their first Final Four berth since 2005 by overcoming foul trouble, changing their entire defensive philosophy at halftime and closing with a 20-5 burst. It will be the sixth Final Four appearance of coach Rick Pitino's Hall of Fame-worthy career, his second at Louisville. And it will be among his most special, even though he had to defeat a team coached by Billy Donovan, his former player, protégé and the person who "made me as a coach," Pitino says.

After the game, Pitino expressed his disappointment for having to go through Donovan. Donovan brushed it off and said, "Are you kidding me, Coach? I'm so happy for you."

Pitino needed this. Louisville needed this. It's not just because the school stuck with Pitino after a sex scandal erupted two years ago because a woman was trying to extort millions from the coach. It's not just because the Cardinals had been eliminated in the first round of the past two NCAA tournaments. It's not just because this team lost by 31 points to Providence earlier this season, or because it failed to score 60 points in the final four games of the regular season.

It's all of those things and so much more. Injuries to three significant players. The criticism that comes with playing in a basketball-obsessed region. The limitations of a team not overflowing with NBA talent. Everything bad, everything difficult, everything awkward about the Cardinals is what makes them so good now.

The notion was tested midway through the second half at the US Airways Center. Pitino had just received a technical foul — for yelling at his own player. Siva Jr., Louisville's best player, went to the bench with four fouls. The deficit had swelled to 11 points with 9:04 remaining.

And that's when the quiet guy opened his mouth.

Senior guard Kyle Kuric, Louisville's leading scorer, grabbed his teammates and uncharacteristically spoke in a huddle.

"Listen, we're going through adversity," he said. "We're down 11. Calls aren't going our way. They're hitting some ridiculous shots. Let's just get some stops because we're facing adversity. And we've been here before."

Louisville outscored Florida 20-5 the rest of the way. After Florida shot 67 percent from the field and made 8 of 11 three-pointers in the first half, the Cardinals switched from their matchup-zone defense to a man-to-man, something they barely even practice, at halftime. Now, even though they were in foul trouble, they were sticking with it.

"We just said, 'Enough,' " Kuric said.

Florida missed all nine of its three-point attempts in the second half.

"They played a switching man-to-man to take away the three," Donovan said. "And I don't know if we did a great job offensively of taking advantage of what was open. I thought we stood around too much. I thought we over-handled (the ball). I don't think we got the ball where it needed to do. And we allowed them some empty possessions to dwindle the lead back down."

It was one of the great victories of the 59-year-old Pitino's career. He has been to heaven and hell and back as a coach, maintaining through the death of loved ones, experiencing incredible highs and learning from a few moments of failure. Humbled and settled now, Pitino has learned to appreciate success. And this victory, on the 25th anniversary of his first Final Four team, is something to cherish.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Pitino said. "I'm so proud of them."

The Cardinals, the first team in the Final Four, are like the loud, neon adidas uniforms they wear. They make you wince upon first sight. And then they impress you for inexplicable reasons.

"Like our team, our uniforms are unique," Siva Jr. said. "And they shock a lot of people."

They shock 'em to tears. Sweet, unbelievable, uncontrollable tears.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

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