NEW YORK (AP) — Rick Pitino has coached 10 teams to conference tournament championships in his 27 seasons in college basketball.
No. 10 seemed to be especially sweet.
Playing tenacious defense throughout and mustering just enough offense to hold off a closing run, Louisville gave Pitino his latest title with a 50-44 victory over Cincinnati on Saturday night in the Big East championship game.
"I think you can see how excited our guys are and how much the tournament means to us," Pitino said. "It's special because I love coaching these guys. We have a very unusual group. It's a throw back."
So was the final score.
It was the fewest points scored in a Big East tournament championship game, 16 less than the previous mark set by Syracuse and Georgetown in 1992.
"We did a lot of really good things defensively," Pitino said. "We knew it was going to take defense to win this game."
It took beating an old foe, too.
The teams had played each other over 90 times through multiple conference movements. Pitino was again facing a former assistant. Familiarity didn't breed contempt, just good defense.
"They know us as well as we know ourselves. We know them as well as they know themselves," Pitino said. "(Cincinnati coach) Mick (Cronin) and I worked together, and we know the way each other think. It's very difficult to play two teams that know each other so well an hour and 20 minutes down the road. It was going to be a defensive battle."
Chris Smith, with his brother who plays for the New York Knicks in the stands, scored 15 points and Kyle Kuric added 13 for seventh-seeded Louisville (26-9), which was in the championship game for the third time. The Cardinals won the title in 2009 and lost to Connecticut in last year's championship game. Now they will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight year.
The game was far from an offensive classic, but it had the sellout crowd of 20,057 at Madison Square Garden on their feet in the final minutes.
"Obviously, it wasn't our best night. Give all the credit to Louisville," said Cronin, who worked for Pitino at Louisville from 2001-03. "Very happy for Coach Pitino, love him like a brother. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. So I'm very, very happy for him. Very disappointed for my players because we didn't give our best effort tonight. I take nothing away from Louisville. We have a tendency to get overconfident at times. I thought that was an issue for us."
Cashmere Wright had 16 points for the fourth-seeded Bearcats (24-10), who were in the title game for the first time.
This was the first time in the 34 years the tournament has been held that at least one of the original seven members of the conference wasn't in the championship game.
Now with more membership movement on the horizon, there's a chance a matchup like this can happen more often.
"I'm a traditionalist, and I'm very disappointed that teams are leaving, certainly," Pitino said when asked about the changing of the guard for the Big East. "But this world today, like I told the guys, even in our town, our players felt it."
Louisville looked to be in control when Smith — whose brother J.R. joined the Knicks during the season — hit a 3-pointer that gave the Cardinals a 44-28 lead with 8:27 to play. But Wright had nine points in a 16-4 run that brought the Bearcats within 48-44 with 2:35 to play.
Russ Smith's two free throws were the only points either team scored the rest of the way. Cincinnati had three possessions trailing by four points but came up empty on each.
"We started playing with our heart, and we came out thinking we were going to win," Wright said of the difference from the first half to the second. "We weren't playing with our heart, and we were just playing off last game. Then in the second half we realized they weren't going to give us the game so we had to go take it, but after we started pushing, it was too late."
Tournament MVP Peyton Siva had 10 points, four rebounds and five assists for Louisville, which will be making its sixth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. Siva averaged 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals in the first three games of the tournament.
"Nobody really expected us to even get this far," Siva said. "It just feels good because a lot of people wrote us off. Coach P had a lot of faith in me. I'm very thankful for that. Everybody really showed a lot of heart today."
He was humble about being selected MVP.
"My teammates are really the people who deserve this trophy," he said on the court as the nets were being cut down.
Even though the matchup was new for a Big East championship game, it was one between old adversaries. Louisville leads the all-time series 54-41 and this was the third different conference tournament in which they've met.
Louisville won all three meetings in the Metro Conference tournament, while Cincinnati won all three matchups in Conference USA. They are now 1-1 in the Big East tournament.
Cincinnati won the only regular season meeting, 60-56. In that game the Bearcats went 11 for 27 from 3-point range in that game and Louisville made only one of its 14 attempts from beyond the arc.
This game was quite different.
Louisville finished 5 for 14 on 3s while the Bearcats were 3 of 14 and that included them missing their first nine.
"We played great defense at their place, held them to 32 percent shooting, but they made 11 3s, and against Syracuse they made eight 3s in the first half," Pitino said. "Our strategy was very simple, we were going to show zone, play man but we were going to guard the NBA line. We were going to limit their attempts and if they did get an attempt, it was not going to be a good look. ...
"So we knew we had to win this game with defense. We played a heck of a game against them at their place and lost. We showed the guys why we lost, but we wanted to stop the 3-point line tonight. We've been winning off our defense. We knew, although both teams were trying to push the pace, we know each other too well, and you don't have time to innovate your offenses with one day prep."
The Cardinals led 24-14 at half and even though Cincinnati picked the scoring pace considerably, they were able to take the 16-point lead.
Wright, who had 22 points in the first meeting, took over when Cincinnati made the run. He hit a jumper, made a 3 and scored on two drives as what looked to be an easy win for Louisville became a close game.
JaQuon Parker was credited with a basket on an offensive goaltending call to get the Bearcats within 48-44 with 2:35 left.
Louisville came up empty on its next three possessions — a turnover and two missed shots — but the Bearcats couldn't take advantage as Wright turned the ball over, Parker missed a jumper and then two free throws.
Pitino improved to 26-9 against his former assistants. He is 5-4 over Cronin, who was the second former assistant Pitino beat in this tournament as the Cardinals beat Seton Hall and coach Kevin Willard in the second round.