A year ago, during Louisville's tumultuous transition to the Big East, coach Rick Pitino wondered if the Cardinals truly belonged in one of the nation's toughest conferences.
He doesn't wonder anymore.
The 16th-ranked Cardinals capped their remarkable turnaround season with an 86-71 win over Seton Hall on Sunday, propelling Louisville (22-8, 12-4) into second-place in the Big East and erasing any lingering doubt Pitino had about his team's toughness.
"We're now a legitimate Big East team, and we weren't last year," Pitino said. "In just eight months we've changed that whole mindset."
It's a mindset Pitino thinks will serve the Cardinals well in the upcoming Big East tournament, and one they showcased against a game Seton Hall squad that hardly looked like a team playing out the string.
The Pirates (13-16, 4-12) nearly matched the Cardinals shot for shot - and blow for blow - in a physical game that saw plenty of pushing and shoving, four technical fouls and an early exit for Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez. Gonzalez was ejected after picking up his second technical foul with 51 seconds remaining.
"We wanted to go down swinging, go down fighting," Gonzalez said. "That's what our team did all year. That was our identity."
By the time Gonzalez began the slow walk to the locker room, the Cardinals had finally shaken the Pirates, who stayed close behind a career-high 29 points from Brian Laing and some red-hot shooting. The Pirates made 10 of their first 13 3-pointers, but cooled off down the stretch, missing their last eight as Louisville relied on its depth to pull away.
"It was close, they tried to scrap it out," said Louisville guard Brandon Jenkins, who scored four points in his final game at Freedom Hall. "But in the end, this is something that can help us."
The Cardinals earned the No. 2 seed in the BIG EAST Conference Championship presented by Aeropostale in New York's Madison Square Garden. U of L will play the winner of the seventh-seeded West Virgina vs. No. 10 Providence game on Thursday, March 8, at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the tournament.
The Cardinals did an excellent job of holding onto the ball despite constant pressure by the Pirates, who lead the Big East in turnovers forced. Louisville gave it away just six times and shot 48 percent from the floor.
"We just wanted to keep our composure," said guard Terrence Williams, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Composure looked to be scarce early. Williams and Seton Hall guard Jamar Nutter had to be separated by officials after a brief shoving match.
"We weren't going to back down," Williams said. "I'm a Louisville guy and by pushing back I was saying we weren't going to back down."
"(The shoving) woke us up a little bit," Pitino added.
Louisville took control late in the first half with a 14-0 run that gave the Cardinals a 44-32 lead. But the Pirates rallied behind Laing, who fueled a 10-0 run to end the half.
"They kept fighting," Jenkins said. "They kept getting clean looks and knocking them down."
Eventually, Louisville's depth wore the Pirates down. Five Cardinals scored in double figures, including freshmen Edgar Sosa (18 points), Derrick Caracter (13 points) and Jerry Smith (10 points). Freshman forward Earl Clark added five points and 10 rebounds for the Cardinals, who won their sixth straight.
"We're very excited about the potential of our program, but we're nowhere near where we want to be," Pitino said. "We're playing real good basketball and I think you have to give a lot of credit to the four freshmen that have come in because they have made a dramatic difference in our ballclub."
The freshmen helped the Cardinals survive a series of second-half runs by the Pirates, scoring 11 straight points to give Louisville a 74-63 lead with 5:58 to go. Seton Hall fought back one last time, pulling within 74-69 on a jumper by Paul Gause.
That would be as close as it got for the Pirates. Clark hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key, Williams added a layup and Louisville closed the game on a 12-2 run, allowing Pitino to play rarely used seniors Chris Current and Brad Gianiny in the final minute.
"There were times we didn't expect to be 12-4," Pitino said. "As a matter of fact in the beginning of the year ... we were hoping for 10-6 (but) we ended the season very strong."
It's a strength the Cardinals hope will carry into the Big East tournament.
"We feel like we have something to prove," Williams said. "A month ago, people didn't think we could go 12-4. People didn't think we'd make (the NCAA) tournament. But we've got that hunger."