The University of Louisville Cardinals (16-1, 4-0 Big East) took their flashy new number one ranking into Hartford to play the University of Connecticut Huskies (12-4, 2-2) at the XL Center. It was the kickoff to ESPN's Big Monday series. It was also the kickoff of a huge Big East swing for the Cards that includes a visit from Syracuse on Saturday. The game started tight but the Cards handled business like the top team in country, coming away with the 73-58 road win.
This was UConn's biggest game of the year because they are sanctioned and therefore not eligible for the post season. Without a chance to compete for a championship, having the number one team in town brought a March Madness atmosphere a couple of months early. The Huskies were also coming off an upset of Notre Dame on Saturday.
Senior point guard Peyton Siva went to the bench early with two quick fouls and had to ride the pine for the entire first half. That meant Russ Smith had to move to that position and had to get a little more Russdiculous than he has shown the last two games. Smith stepped up to the challenge and kept the Cards in the game with 15 points in the first half.
The Cards went down by as much as 10 points while they waited for the Huskies momentum to cool off. Surviving the first half onslaught and knowing Siva was coming back had Cardinal fans just biding their time.
Louisville went into the locker room down 34-28. The things to work on for coach Rick Pitino’s crew: shooting percentage (only 40% in the first half), unselfish play (only 3 assists) and stronger defense which should always be a Cardinal signature.
And work on them they did. A different Louisville squad opened the second half. The squad that went to number one in the AP and USA Today polls. The defensive deflections increased, the steals happened and Smith was in his zone. Then add better offense from Chane Behanan and the presence of floor general Siva and you could watch the Cards pull away.
And then the Cardinal momentum became emphatic. Louisville’s athleticism and court savvy made for a long, cold night for the Huskies. Shabazz Napier, their star of the first half, was barely noticed in the second.
Russ Smith led all scorers with 23. Gorgui Dieng took control on the boards and ended up snagging 16 rebounds. Chane Behanan was huge in the game as well, scoring 16 points, pulling in 9 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists. And Siva? 11 points and 4 assists while essentially only playing half a game.
The Cards come home to the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday for a big showdown with 6th ranked Syracuse. Tip off is at 4pm.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton