LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- It was a 23-point win over the No. 13 team in the nation. And get this, it could have been worse.
The University of Louisville fooled around offensively in the first half, jacked up a lot of ill-advised three-pointers, hurried shots, didn't run its offense, but still took an eight-point lead to the break.
It's a testament to how good this team could be, and to how good its defense already is. They kept showing commercials for the upcoming film, "The Hobbit" during the U of L-Missouri game. I kept waiting for Russ Smith to show up, steal the ring, and take off with it on the break.
Of the 374 points U of L has scored this season, 140 have come off opponent turnovers. It turned Missouri over 23 times for 30 points -- and that includes a handful off missed opportunities on the break.
But here's the thing about U of L. At least on offense, being in a hurry doesn't always make it more productive. And in the second half against Mizzou, it showed that when it plays under control offensively, it can be dominant at both ends.
Its best basketball of the season came, strangely enough, during a stretch that began with Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng on the bench in foul trouble. Dieng has been flashing into the high post all season, but when he was replaced by Steven Van Treese the ball started going down low, and the result was a pair of kickouts for inside-out threes, and the Cards knocked them down.
Not that it didn't happen quickly, mind you. The Cardinals went on an 11-0 run that took only 1:09. But they sped the game with their defense, not their offense. Siva got a steal, then Wayne Blackshear hit a couple of free throws. Dieng left the game and some crisp ball movement yielded an open three for Russ Smith. Chane Behanan put back a missed three, then Van Treese kicked out a nice pass for another Hancock three.
The Cardinals held that lead in the 15-point range until the under-8 timeout, when Siva returned and the offensive attack became a bit more deliberate, with Siva taking tight control. Under that more controlled offense, Siva was nearly perfect.
Think about this. From the under-8 timeout till the final buzzer, U of L did not miss a shot. It went 8-for-8 from the field to close out the game. Playing in front of Pitino and its own bench (except for a brief stretch when Pitino went running to the locker room restroom) the Cardinal offense executed nearly flawlessly. A rarely called carry on Siva in the closing minute was his only turnover of the game.
The result was a bit of a tremor for college basketball. This is a team that can be dominant against very good teams -- but it has to rein itself in offensively. In the first half, U of L took 37 shots, 13 of them three-pointers, and scored 39 points. In the second, the Cards took only 26 shots (missed only nine of them) and went 5 of 8 from three-point range and scored 39.
"Our bench won the game for us," Pitino said. "The starters finished it off, but when Peyton and Gorgui are on the bench and you extend your lead, that's special."
PItino tweaked the Cards' defense in a significant way for the first time this season. The Cards had shown very little zone, but played almost all 2-3 against Missouri, because Pitino was worried about the Tigers' slashing guards getting U of L's big men into foul trouble. Pitino also tweaked the press just a bit, going to more of a ball-denial on the inbounds pass.
The Cards were led in scoring by an unlikely source -- transfer forward Luke Hancock, who had 19 points and made 5 of 7 threes.
"All Luke needed was to get away from home," Pitino said. "In the KFC Yum! Center, every time he misses a shot the fans sigh. Here, nobody knows who Luke or Wayne Blackshear are. It just lets them play and get their confidence, and now he's over it and he'll be fine."
Russ Smith was right behind him with 18 points, but also had a career-high six rebounds, six steals and three assists. In 61 career games, Smith has at least one steal in 47 of them. Smith's frantic pace even extended to the post-game television interview, when he and Peyton Siva ran up behind Pitino, shouting and rubbing his head.
"Russ is a home run player," Pitino said. "Every possession you really have your heart in your mouth, but he really hits a lot of home runs. He bothers everybody, and he allows Peyton to do a lot of good things out there because he is so intense. Peyton knows he is going to gamble. But you have got to give Russ his free reign."
U of L also got 13 points each from Siva and Behanan, and 12 from Blackshear.
Keep watching WDRB.com for previews of the Cardinals' matchup with Duke for the championship of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament tonight at 9:30 p.m.