Pitino heads to New Orleans without his team
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville men's coach Rick Pitino went to New Orleans to watch the Cardinals' women's team play Connecticut in Tuesday night's NCAA championship game.
But his players did not go.
Pitino, fresh off his team's 82-76 win in the title game over Michigan on Monday night, was sitting behind the Cardinals bench trying to spur on the women's team.
He talked to the women's team at their pregame meal and told them to just enjoy the moment and have fun in the game.
Under NCAA rules, neither the school nor Pitino could pay for the players to get to New Orleans to attend the game.
The NCAA says it granted a waiver to Louisville early Tuesday that would have allowed the school to pay for the trip, but the school says it had already made plans to go home.
The team plane landed about 2:25 p.m. EDT, and players immediately boarded a bus back to campus.
A few dozen spectators looked on from a fence at Louisville International Airport.
After Louisville's win in Atlanta, players and Pitino hinted at going straight to New Orleans to support the surprising women's team against the Huskies in the final.
The men and their coach have frequently attended women's games this season and both programs have said they feed off each other's success.
"They all wanted to go to the women's game,'' Pitino said after the game. "We asked the NCAA and they said it's illegal, we were going to take the plane and go see them, which is a shame. I guess it's an extra benefit. ...
"If we could ever win two championships, men's and women's, it would absolutely be awesome.''
For Louisville players, the benefit was returning home to a campus and city enjoying Cardinals mania.
If Tuesday was any indication, a disguise might be helpful if they want to go anywhere.
Several dozen fans and followers seeking autographs and photos greeted the Cardinals as they came back to Billy Minardi Hall.
The partying will peak during Wednesday's official celebration at the KFC Yum! Center. It will include the Cardinals' women's basketball team.
For now, the men are basking in the afterglow of their first title since 1986 - adulation that had passersby changing directions upon seeing their team back in town.
Kentucky coach John Calipari was among those congratulating Louisville. He tweeted, "Congrats to Louisville. They had a wonderful year from start to finish which is really difficult to do. For us, next season begins today.''
Tonya Patterson said she had no choice but to reverse course after spotting Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock in the parking lot.
A passenger in a car driven by Elijah Cheatam, she had her make a quick U-turn on Fourth Street and into the lot so her daughter, Sophia, 8, could jump out of the back seat and get an autograph.
"We just happened to be coming through and I said, `that has to be Luke,' "the mother said as Cheatam took pictures of Sophia with Hancock. "After all the threes he hit, we just had to catch this opportunity. I mean, this is historic.''
Many of those celebrating Louisville's third national title and first in 27 years were preparing for another potential party Tuesday night as the Cardinals women chased the chance to give the school another championship.
No official game-watching party was planned on campus, leaving students to view the women's game the same way they watched the men - in dorm rooms, apartments and several restaurants and bars around campus.
There was the hope that some of the players would pop in at one of the campus hangouts, but they looked more in need of sleep as they exited the bus and walked into the dorm.
Fortunately for those who waited, players obliged their requests as they got in their cars.
Louisville sophomores Ben Kao and Chelsea Tidd were the most patient and persistent, getting most of the players to autograph their $110 adidas mesh T-shirts bearing Peyton Siva's number 3. Kao wore white while Tidd wore red, both shirts marked up with the names of prominent Cardinals.
"They've been gone for almost a month, so this was really exciting to see them,'' said Kao, also touting the accomplishment. "I can't wash this shirt, but I can hang it up.''
Tidd was hoping to add more names from the women's team upon their return.
"You wouldn't think both teams would get there, so it would be great if they both won,'' she said. "This is such an exciting time in our school's history. The best part about today was I didn't think I'd get any autographs.''
The joyous mood could be seen around the city, as message boards congratulated both Cardinals' programs for their achievement. Even Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is basking in another milestone for Bluegrass State basketball.
Last year was Kentucky's turn in the spotlight, achieved with a Final Four win over Louisville en route to its eighth championship. This season began with the Cardinals and Wildcats ranked 2-3 behind Indiana, but ended with Louisville reigning over the sport.
"It couldn't be a bigger day for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,'' Beshear said afterward on the floor of the Georgia Dome. "For the Cardinals to win it this year, UK won it last year. You talk about the basketball capital of the world, it's right here in Kentucky.''
AP Staff Writer Brett Barroquere in Louisville and Freelance Writer Josh Abner in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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