NEW YORK -- Whatever Rick Pitino said at halftime worked.
Louisville erased a seven point deficit at the break thanks in large part to a 17-2 run right out of the locker room as the Cardinals went on to beat Villanova 69-55 in its semi-final matchup Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
"At halftime I told the guys I was speechless for the first time this year," Pitino told his team during the intermission. "I said, 'I don't recognize any of you, I don't know who you are.'"
But the Cards found their identity in the second half -- they came out on fire draining consecutive three's -- one by Earl Clark and another from Andre McGee, who finished with nine points -- all from behind the arc.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright immediately called timeout, but the Wildcats were unable to handle the Louisville pressure early in the half. And after a Preston Knowles three pointer with 15:16 to play the Cardinal's had turned a seven point deficit into a seven point lead.
"I think we pressured and dug in," Clark said about the difference between the first and second half. "We got back to what we do -- forcing turnovers and our guards did a great job putting the heat [on Villanova's] guards and we hit open threes."
Clark led Louisville with 17 points including a late tip-in and three pointer that put the dagger in the Wildcats. Jerry Smith added 16 points for the Cardinals.
Louisville forced Villanova into 12 second half turnovers -- 23 for the game, as they held the Wildcats to just 28 percent from the field in the period.
"When we play man or zone we really put great emphasis on pressuring the basketball," Pitino said.
Dwayne Anderson, Dante Cunningham and Corey Fisher each had 14 points for the Wildcats (26-7), but Louisville turned up the defense on Scottie Reynolds limiting the guard to just two points on 1-of-6 shooting while forcing him into six turnovers.
Even without Reynolds, Villanova countered Louisville's punch, steadying the ship and an Anderson tip-in with 8:15 to play tied the score at 50. But the Cardinals proved to be too much down the stretch rattling off 10 straight points creating a deficit that was insurmountable for the Wildcats.
"They really did a great job on him. They doubled him every time he had the ball in the backcourt." Wright said of the Louisville defense against Reynolds who came into the game averaging 15.9 points per game. "They're the best defensive team in the country. On a night like that when they're going to so much pressure on Scottie, our other guys have to step up because there were opportunities for the other guys and tonight we just didn't do it."
Louisville (27-5) was limited to just 30.8 percent from the field in the first half as Villanova built its 34-26 advantage. But the Cardinals heated up after the break -- particularly from behind the arc, connecting on 8-of-15 in the second half.
For the Wildcats, they have a veteran group and Wright does not think this loss will have any effect on his team as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
"We've been good at that this year," Wright said about his team's ability to bounce back from tough losses. "I think we'll be good at it, but honestly this one -- I thought we had a chance to win this.
"We got to get over this one, there's no question. This one is tough, really tough because now you're running out of chances."
That next chance will come when the Wildcats return to Philadelphia and hope that when the brackets are released they remain at home with the Wachovia Center hosting the first two rounds.
The Cards will have one more hurdle before the NCAA Tournament when they meet the winner of No.6 Syracuse and No.7 West Virginia Saturday night. It will be their first chance in the championship game since becoming a member of the conference in 2006.
"In the past couple years together with this group we haven't had a lot of success in the Garden," Smith said. "For us to get to the championship of the Big East Tournament, that's saying a lot for us and what we've overcome."