LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville coach Rick Pitino couldn't help looking back on one of the most successful eras in program history.
As he tried to digest Friday night's 74-69 Midwest Regional loss to in-state rival Kentucky, the Cardinals coach reflected on a successful run including three consecutive conference tournament titles, back-to-back Final Fours and the school's third NCAA championship last spring.
Louisville's high hopes for another semifinal appearance ended two games short, but not until the end of a long ride.
Now comes the hard part for Louisville (31-6), replacing high-scoring senior guard Russ Smith, perimeter threat Luke Hancock and reserves Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson. All were big factors in the run and Pitino has said replacing them will be tough — though not as difficult as seeing the good times officially end.
"We celebrated an awful lot the last three years," Pitino said. "We're going to be very gracious in this defeat because we've had a lot of celebrations, and it's the end of an era for us, for a lot of us. So it's something that we're certainly going to miss.
"We've lost Gorgui (Dieng), Peyton (Siva), and now we're probably going to lose Russ, Luke, Montrezl (Harrell), and (Van Treese). It's the end of an era. And I as a coach certainly appreciate all their efforts."
There was definitely a lot for Pitino to feel good about.
Louisville had sought to become the NCAA's first repeat champion since Florida (2006-07), and certain periods showed a team capable of achieving Pitino's wish of becoming a "mini-dynasty." The Cardinals won the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship and were among the nation's leaders in turnover margin.
They seemed headed for their third straight regional final before collapsing in the final minutes against Kentucky in Indianapolis. The combination of Harrell and Van Treese fouling, missed free throws in the first half and defensive breakdowns in the second ended with the Cardinals losing a game they had led for all but a couple of minutes.
The fact they let it slip away is what hurt the most.
"They got second-chance shots and they converted," Harrell said. "We didn't hit our free throws and they did."
Louisville now moves on to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season needing to replace nearly half its roster.
Louisville dismissed forward Chane Behanan in December after the first loss to Kentucky and he has transferred to Colorado State. He was already playing behind Harrell, who blossomed into an intimidating frontcourt player and is projected as a late first- or early second-round draft pick if he turns pro.
Smith leaves a bigger void to fill beyond being the school's career steals leader and No. 5 scorer. He became more of a facilitator this season, helping junior college transfer Chris Jones and freshman Terry Rozier get comfortable in the backcourt.
Returning for his senior season also improved Smith's shot selection, though his final college attempt from beyond the arc in the closing seconds missed. He finished with 23 points, and the disappointing end to his career didn't outweigh the many highs he enjoyed.
Asked about his legacy, Smith said, "I went out on a good note and I'm satisfied with it. ... I respect the game a lot. Whatever it is, I just want it to be a positive legacy."
Louisville also confirmed Saturday that guard Kevin Ware will transfer. Monday marks a year since he sustained a gruesome right leg injury in the regional final that became a rallying point during the title run. He played in just nine games this season and was about to be redshirted.
Said Pitino, "We wish Kevin Godspeed."
Jones and Rozier will return, providing the Cardinals capable ball handlers and physical defenders. Louisville also gets back Anton Gill in the backcourt. Louisville's frontcourt returns Wayne Blackshear, Akoy Agau and Mangok Mathiang, who showed potential as a shot-blocker and rebounder but needs to bulk up for tougher play in the ACC.
As the Cardinals dealt with the loss, Rozier said it was important to appreciate what they've achieved and for the returning players to continue that success.
Added Rozier, "it's going to hit me later on, but it was a fun run."