Sunday, March 16, 2003

C-USA: Cardinals win first title

Whitehead named MVP after scoring 17 points in title game

By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Louisville forward Luke Whitehead set a Conference USA tournament record with 37 rebounds, but none were as important as the last one.

The 6-foot-7 junior grabbed the ball after Eric Bush missed a layup, then hit two free throws with 4.7 seconds left to clinch Louisville's 83-78 win over Alabama-Birmingham in the championship game Saturday.

Whitehead finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds, his third double-double in the Cardinals' three tournament games.

As Whitehead stepped to the free-throw line, the home crowd of 17,202, a record for the tournament's championship game, started chanting, "MVP! MVP!"

Whitehead was later named the tournament's most valuable player.

"If I would've had however many rebounds and we would've lost the game, I would not have been the MVP," Whitehead said. "It's not about the personal awards. It's all about winning."

Taquan Dean added 15 points and Francisco Garcia had 14 for No. 20 Louisville (24-6), which won its first Conference USA tournament title.

"I'm really impressed with our basketball team," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, in his second season with the Cardinals. "When I had the first day of practice two years ago, I never could have dreamed of this day."

Whitehead has become Louisville's primary rebounder since Ellis Myles was lost for the season with a knee injury Feb. 27.

He's averaged 13 rebounds a game in the last four games, all Louisville victories.

"Ellis got injured, but it would be a shame if people didn't step up and fill his shoes," Whitehead said. "We owe it to him. We've got to play with all our heart."

The Cardinals won despite a season-low eight points from leading scorer Reece Gaines. The 6-foot-6 senior wasn't worried about his stats afterward; he was just ready to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since his freshman season.

"I've been through a lot," he said. "It feels great to finally be part of a great team."

Morris Finley scored 20 points, and Demario Eddins had 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Blazers (19-12), who led by six early in the second half but finally showed the effects from playing four games in four days.

Garcia hit a 3-pointer from the wing with 17 1/2 minutes left in the game to start a 16-2 Louisville run. The Blazers committed three turnovers during the spurt.

Whitehead grabbed eight rebounds in the first 12 minutes of the second half.

Dean, who hit the winning 3-pointer in the Cardinals' 78-75 win over Memphis on Friday, had a three-point play, and Garcia tacked on three free throws to give Louisville a 54-46 lead.

UAB, which set a tournament record with 20 steals in an 83-76 upset of Marquette on Thursday, turned to its defense to mount the final charge.

The Blazers had five steals in a four-minute span, the last by Finley with 1:53 left. That led to Sidney Ball's three-point play that cut Louisville's lead to 76-73.

Pitino expected his team to wear down the Blazers and was surprised by their late surge.

"I've been coaching a long time and I am as impressed with this basketball team, Alabama-Birmingham, as I have been with any team we have faced," Pitino said. "Four games in four days, that's as gutsy as it gets."

Louisville's Kendall Dartez sank two free throws with 1:45 to go, but Finley made his third 3-pointer with 1:33 left to trim the deficit to two.

Garcia hit a free throw and Eddins scored UAB's last points on two free throws with 53.2 seconds left.

"Not to take anything away from Louisville, but I thought our guys put in the guttiest performance of any team in the country," UAB coach Mike Anderson said. "We were in a position to have a chance to win the game. We just didn't finish it off."

Bush had 14 points and seven rebounds for UAB. He already had established a tournament record with 11 steals and added two more Saturday.

Pitino's teams have won 21 of their last 23 games in league tournaments. Pitino went 17-1 in the Southeastern Conference tournament when he was at Kentucky from 1989-97.

Pitino predicted the Cardinals could be as high as a No. 2 seed when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced Sunday.

"We're the type of team that can go out in the first round if we don't rebound the ball," Pitino said. "Or we could go very far. But we're just happy to be there."

UAB (19-12) - Kennedy 4-6 0-2 8, Eddins 6-11 6-6 18, Ball 3-8 3-3 9, Bush 3-13 7-7 14, Finley 7-24 3-5 20, Broom 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 1-1 0-0 2, Jones 1-5 0-0 3, C.Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Tobias 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 27-73 19-23 78.

Louisville (24-6) - Whitehead 6-14 5-7 17, Brown 3-7 2-2 10, Stone 3-5 4-6 10, Dean 6-17 1-1 15, Gaines 1-6 6-8 8, Dartez 2-3 3-4 7, Northern 0-0 0-0 0, Mohammed 0-1 2-2 2, Garcia 3-9 6-7 14, George 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 24-64 29-37 83.

Halftime-UAB 37-35. 3-Point Goals-UAB 5-23 (Finley 3-12, Jones 1-2, Bush 1-5, Broom 0-1, Ball 0-3), Louisville 6-24 (Brown 2-4, Garcia 2-6, Dean 2-11, Gaines 0-3).

Fouled out-Ball, Kennedy, Stone. Rebounds-UAB 46 (Eddins 12), Louisville 47 (Whitehead 14). Assists-UAB 11 (Eddins, Finley 3), Louisville 13 (Gaines 4). Total fouls-UAB 27, Louisville 19. A-17,202.

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