Luke Whitehead registered his third consecutive double-double, finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds to lead Louisville to an 83-78 victory over UAB in the championship game of the 2003 Kelly Tires Conference USA Tournament. Whitehead was named Tournament Most Valuable Player as the Cardinals won their first C-USA Tournament title. The 6-foot-7 junior had double-doubles in all three of the Cardinals' games, finishing with a tournament-record 37 rebounds.
Fittingly, Whitehead sealed Saturday's victory with a rebound.
Louisville, ranked 20th, was clinging to an 81-78 lead after Reece Gaines made two free throws with 11.7 seconds left. UAB's Eric Bush raced down court but missed a driving layup, and Whitehead jumped high to grab the ball.
He was fouled and sank two free throws with 4.7 seconds left, triggering chants of "MVP! MVP!" from the home crowd of 17,202, a tournament record for a championship game.
In winning its first league tournament title since 1995, Louisville (24-6) got plenty of help from a pair of freshmen: Taquan Dean scored 15 points, Francisco Garcia 14.
That made up for leading scorer Gaines' poor game; he finished with a season-low eight points.
And the Cardinals also won despite an awful shooting performance, making just 37.5 percent (24 of 64) from the field.
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˝ 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.
Gaines lost the ball to Finley, and Sidney Ball converted a three-point play with 1:49 left to cut Louisville's lead to 76-73.
Dartez sank two free throws with 1:45 to go, but Finley sank 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.
Bush had 14 points and seven rebounds for UAB. Bush already had established a tournament record with 11 steals and added two more Saturday.
Louisville coach Rick 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.
TOURNAMENT NOTES Seven games in the tournament were decided by six points or less and six were won by the lower-seeded team.
Today’s attendance of 17,202 established a new Conference USA Tournament Championship Game record, surpassing the 15,242 who watched Cincinnati beat Marquette in the 2002 championship game.
The 76,157 total tournament attendance surpassed the previous record of 70,089 fans who attended the 2002 Conference USA Tournament in Cincinnati … the 12,692 average attendance for the six sessions of the 2003 Conference USA Tournament also surpassed the previous record-high average of 11,681 fans who attended the 2002 in Cincinnati.
The 18,355 fans who attended the semifinal matchup between Louisville and Memphis on Friday established a new single game Conference USA Tournament record.
Louisville became the fifth school to win the C-USA Tournament in the league’s first eight seasons. Cincinnati (2002, 1998, 1996), Charlotte (2001, 1999), Marquette (1997) and Saint Louis (2000) are the others.
This is the third time that the host school has won the Conference USA Tournament. Cincinnati won the 2002 tournament at Firstar Center in downtown Cincinnati and the 1998 tournament at the Shoemaker Center \on the UC Campus.
ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM Marque Perry, G, Saint Louis Eric Bush, G, UAB Morris Finley, G, UAB Francisco Garcia, F, Louisville Luke Whitehead, F, Louisville
Tournament MVP: Luke Whitehead, Louisville
KELLY TIRES CONFERENCE-USA TOURNAMENT
Wednesday, March 12 (First Round) (10) South Florida 76, DePaul 74 (6) Tulane 74, (11) Houston 52 (9) UAB 85, (8) Charlotte 61 (12) Southern Miss 63, (5) Cincinnati 61
Thursday, March 13 (Quarterfinals) (2) Memphis 62, South Florida 56 (3) Louisville 82, Tulane 66 UAB 83, (1) Marquette 76 (4) Saint Louis 69, Southern Miss 56
Friday, March 14 (Semifinals) Louisville 78, Memphis 75 UAB 63, Saint Louis 62
Saturday, March 15 Championship Game (CBS) 11:40a Louisville 83, UAB 78