Louisville basketball: Remembering the Final Four with Larry O’Bannon

Reliving Louisville basketball’s ’05 Final Four run.

Larry O’Bannon emerged on the college basketball recruiting scene while attending Louisville Male High School, where he donned the purple and gold alongside future Louisville running back Michael Bush. One day, Coach Rick Pitino and the Louisville basketball staff came knocking.

“I grew up a fan of the Cards because it was my hometown team,” O’Bannon said.

Something surprising to most, despite being a local kid, Louisville wasn’t his first choice.

“I always wanted to go to UConn. That was my dream school. I loved Ray Allen, that’s why I wore the number 34,” O’Bannon said.

How the career of Louisville basketball star Larry O’ Bannon came to be

Alas, he settled in and committed to play for Louisville. Soon he began to get acquainted with the coaching staff and his teammates.“I was close with all of the guys, but (mostly) B.J. (Brandon Jenkins) and Alhaji (Mohammed) at the time. We didn’t have any (locker room) beef,” O’Bannon said. “We teased Reggie Theus all the time about his hair and his voice.”

It was pretty safe to say that the squad’s Larry played on were pretty tight-knit. One thing about playing for Rick Pitino, however, is not everything is unicorns and rainbows. Pitino’s teams worked as hard as they played, sometimes to the extreme.

“We did have a time where we had three practices in one day. Pitino was having a bad day and he made us practice at 10 and then at six. He got super mad with fifteen minutes left in practice and told us to come back at midnight. I didn’t get home until two am,” O’Bannon said.

During practices and games, Pitino would test his players’ cerebral toughness.

“If he was pleased with your effort, you were playing and he coached you, but he never really told you,” he said. “He was always doing mind games. He’d make you run, bench you, and put you in the doghouse. He never wanted you complacent.”

O’Bannon’s first three years of college were a bit up and down. His freshman and sophomore years he struggled to make an impact. In his junior season, we began to see flashes of what kind of player he could be.

Many knocked him for being too nice of a competitor, lacking that killer instinct that great Pitino-coached guys are instilled with. He opted to hop in the gym and get stronger and quicker, as did the rest of the team. In his senior season, O’Bannon and the Cardinals were primed for greatness.

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“We knew what we wanted,” O’Bannon said. “It was just a matter of staying healthy.” Staying healthy was easier said than done for that bunch.

“Taquan (Taqwa Pinero) just had surgery. Ellis (Myles) was coming back from surgery,” O’Bannon said. Louisville, though undersized for the majority, had a lot of talent and plenty of experience to go the distance.

“We had a bunch of seniors so (Pitino) didn’t have to say much to keep us focused,” O’Bannon said.

After losing their second game of the season to Iowa on a neutral floor 76-71, the Cards won their next five games.

“We didn’t necessarily get off to a rocky start,” he said.

After their next loss, they reeled off five more wins in a row. After another setback, they won their next nine. There was something fearlessly and relentlessly confident about this team. “Mental approach and opportunity, freedom to play without worrying, to play without being afraid to make a mistake makes a world of a difference,” O’Bannon said.

After knocking off no. 18 Cincinnati twice and notching some key road victories, Louisville barreled through the C-USA Tournament, culminating in a 75-74 victory over Memphis for the tourney title in an absolute thriller. Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Cards had their eyes on a much bigger prize, a Final Four appearance and a shot at a national title.

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“We knew we were good and had the potential to get there,” he said.

After knocking off Louisiana and Georgia Tech and upsetting a Nate Robinson-led top-seeded Washington squad, a familiar foe awaited in the Elite Eight; John Beilein and the West Virginia Mountaineers.

In the early going, the plot seemed to be plucked from our worst nightmares.

“The West Virginia game was tough. Those guys couldn’t miss, and really had us boggled with their zone defense,” O’Bannon said.

Kevin freaking Pittsnogle. Louisville soon found itself in quite the predicament, falling behind by 20 in the first half. The outlook seemed very bleak. But you never really could discount those scrappy Pitino squads.“Got down 20 and then at halftime we came out pressing,” O’Bannon said.

Perhaps the longest second half in Louisville basketball history was beginning to unfold in the Cards favor down the stretch. “A little fatigue kicked in and that’s all she wrote. Guys start dribbling off their foot, shots come up short, defense breaks down,” he said.

I asked Larry if the fatigue factor was like clockwork to players like it was to fans. His response made me laugh: “Usually about the 10-minute mark in the second half is the time we’d make our run.”

Sounds about right.

Louisville’s 93-85 comeback win in overtime was their 13th win in a row. Despite the loss to Illinois in the next round, it marked the school’s first trip back to the Final Four since the 1986 Championship season. “It’s always good to be a hometown kid and help put the university back where it belonged on the national stage. To help be a part of that is a great feeling and one people will remember for a while,” O’Bannon said.

Larry O’Bannon averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, and 3.4 apg, shot 52.5% from the field, and 91.5 percent from the free-throw line in the NCAA Tournament. He was named Regional MVP. His senior season he averaged 15.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, and 2 apg. He was the team’s second-leading scorer.

Since then, he’s been…well, playing basketball.

“I’ve been all over, Europe for 10 years and South America for five years,” O’Bannon said. “Italy and Israel were probably top of the list. Then France.”

Larry has big plans moving forward.

Now I’m podcasting and going into coaching once the pandemic ends,” he said.

He elaborated on Coach Pitino and Coach Chris Mack and the current state of Louisville basketball.

“Coach Mack has done a wonderful job. The program never really fell off, just suffered a little black eye. The play on the court has always been there. Pitino and I are cool. We talk periodically. I congratulated him on his new job with Iona this Spring,” O’Bannon said.

Next: Ranking the top 100 players of all time

A lot of us can point to local talent that stayed home to wear the Louisville red and black, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beloved homegrown player this century than Larry O’Bannon.

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