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BYU strikes it rich in Vegas

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BYU's Jonathan Tavernari drives past Louisville's Earl Clark in Friday's game.

BYU’s Jonathan Tavernari drives past Louisville’s Earl Clark in Friday’s game.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — So, the BYU basketball team played some Cards at the Orleans in Las Vegas on Friday night, beating the odds and coming out a winner.

Whoa! Before the university gets inundated with calls about student-athletes gambling and possible Honor Code violations, let's put everything in perspective.

Still unbeaten at 5-0, the Cougars upset the Louisville Cardinals (3-1) — the nation's sixth-ranked team — in Friday night's third round of the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena, with the 78-76 victory propelling BYU into tonight's championship against No. 1 North Carolina.

The Tar Heels (4-0) beat Old Dominian 99-82 in Friday's late semifinal game.

Jonathan Tavernari and Trent Plaisted combined for 50 points in a stellar display of outside shooting (Tavernari) and inside presence (Plaisted).

Tavernari posted a career-high 29 points, including five 3-pointers. And Plaisted made 10 of 16 shots from the floor en route to 21 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.

It marked the Cougars' best victory over a highly ranked foe in nearly a half-century, dating back to the Dec. 21, 1965, win over No. 2 St. Joseph.

After the game, BYU head coach Dave Rose gave his players an hour's allowance to celebrate before focusing on tonight's game. For the Cougars, it's out of the sixth-ranked frying pan and into the top-ranked fire.

"I told them not to let this be the high point of our season," Rose said, "not to let it distract us from what we want to do."

Saying "BYU without question deserved this victory," Louisville head coach Rick Pitino bemoaned the combination of unforced Cardinal turnovers and BYU's torrid shooting.

"They made tough shots — they broke our back when the game was one the line," he said, then singling out Tavernari. "He takes a lot of challenged shots and makes them — he's a potent weapon."

After a Lee Cummard basket opened the game's scoring, the Cougars survived an 0-for-9 drought and a five-point deficit, rebounding to take a seven-point lead eight and a half minutes into the contest. But the Cardinals clawed back to within two several times — the last time at 26-24 with five minutes remaining.

Through the first 12 minutes, BYU was leading — despite getting outshot 67 percent to 26 percent.

BYU upped its two-point margin to 10 over the next two-plus minutes, thanks to two Sam Burgess free thows, a Cummard trey, a Plaisted inside basket, a Tavernari 3 and a Plaisted free throw.

The Cougars still led by 10 with under two minutes before intermission before 3-ponters by the Cardinals Jerry Smith and Will Scott helped trim Louisville's deficit to 41-37 at the half.

Five minutes into the second half, the Cards took the first of several small leads, using an 8-0 run keyed by Derrick Caracter, who finished with a team-high 24 points. The two traded advantages until BYU was up 58-57 with nine minutes remaining.

"I wanted them to play like I knew they could," said Rose, using timeouts to urge his team "to rebound the basketball and push it."

The Cougars responded in kind — Murdock hit a driving jumper, Tavernari tossed a behind-the-back pass to Plaisted for a fast-break jam, Plaisted sank a jumper, Tavernari connected on long 3 and freshman Chris Collinsworth dunked off a Murdock fast-break pass for a 69-61 lead with five minutes to play.

Louisville was able to pull within a shot's difference just once the rest of the way — Smith hit another 3-pointer for a 76-73 score with 13 seconds left. Tavernari made two free throws with 1.4 seconds to play, enough to offset Scott's desperation half-court heave that banked in for the final 78-76 score.

BYU, Louisville, North Carolina and Old Dominion were considered the marquee programs to play in the eight-team Invitational. The only one of the eight located outside the Eastern time zone, BYU seemed a nice tourney throw-in, given a sizeable LDS Church membership in the Vegas area and two Cougars — Tavernari and Michael Loyd Jr. — who prepped locally.

But it was expected that Louisville and North Carolina — a pair of perennial college-hoops powerhouses — would play in the championship game tonight.

"We were looking forward to it," admitted Pitino, "but BYU is a better basketball team."

E-mail: taylor@desnews.com