LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Fog may have slowed down the newly-minted No. 1 University of Louisville basketball team. But in the second half of a 73-58 Cardinal victory, Connecticut could not.
The Cards cooled it in Louisville Sunday night instead of chartering to Connecticut, stuck at home because of fog in Hartford, the Insurance Capital of the World.
It could've been a break for the host Huskies. U of L didn't arrive in Hartford until 2 p.m. on game day, and didn't even conduct a shootaround. Making matters worse, freshman forward Montrezl Harrell was slowed by a stomach bug, and Cardinals' point guard Peyton Siva picked up his second foul four minutes into the game and sat for the rest of the first half.
Unfortunately for UConn, however, it did not have Russ Smith insurance.
Despite shooting 58.3 percent in the half and leading at one point by 10, UConn led by only six at halftime thanks to 15 points by Smith.
Afterward, U of L coach Rick Pitino sounded like a weather man.
"We just had to weather the storm with Peyton on the bench," he said. "And we slowed down on offense and the only way we could score was pick-and-rolls with Russ. But it was enough to keep us close so that we could do what you're supposed to do on the road, bring it in the second half."
The Cards brought it. Tweaking their 2-3 zone to cut more into passing lanes Connecticut had established in the first half, they started to force turnovers, and Connecticut began to wilt under the Cards full-court pressure system.
"They deserve the No. 1 ranking," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "They have talent. They play together. They play hard. Whoever's open they get the ball to. And they have those two amazing guards. Siva and Russ put pressure on our offense and defense the whole night."
The Cards did not have a single assist in the first half (after dishing out only six in a Saturday-night victory over South Florida). In the second half, they collected 13 and shot 60.7 percent from the field while holding UConn to 25.9 percent.
"The defense, believe it or not, is 50 percent cerebral," Pitino said, then explained that Siva being back out on the court in the second half gave the Cards a second player, in addition to Gorgui Dieng, who excels in reading opposing offenses.
If the Cards continue to show any disturbing tendencies during their current 11-game winning streak, they are these.
1). They have a habit of forgetting about Chane Behanan. He got only two shots in the first half, and both were offensive-rebound tries. It's not that the Cards didn't try at all. More than once, they tried to attack the Connecticut zone by penetrating and dishing to the post, but their offense was rushed. They were making their moves and passes without reversing the ball or moving the UConn zone around at all. In the second half, playing in front of their own bench, that changed, and Behanan responded with an outstanding half, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and five assists.
2). They have a tendency to get a bit rushed or sloppy offensively when they're on a run. They had four empty possessions in the midst of a spurt when UConn was reeling just before the midway point of the second half on Monday. Their lead was six when it could've been twice that or more. In a way, it's understandable, given the chaos U of L causes on defense. It's tough to be manic at one end and methodical on the other. The same frenzy that forces turnovers sometimes causes turnovers of your own. Monday night, it didn't matter. Their defense was too much for UConn, which visibly wore down, with all five starters playing 30 minutes or more.
The Cards eventually built an 18-point lead, and were in complete control over the game's final 10 minutes.
"I don't know what Pitino said to them, but he must have said something," Ollie said of U of L's second-half surge. "They played very, very hard in the second half. They took it to us."
For the game, they outscored Connecticut 44-20 in the paint, and have outscored their past three opponents 80-34 in the paint. They scored 19 points off turnovers. And they outscored UConn 17-6 off the fast break. They've outscored their past three opponents 54-16 on the fast break.
Smith finished with 23 points, Siva had 11 and Dieng, who had a rough first half, would up with 16 rebounds for a second straight game.
If there was any concern about playing with the target of a No. 1 ranking, this win on the road against a team coming off a big road win at Notre Dame and hyped up -- facing an NCAA postseason ban this season -- for maybe its biggest game of the season, this win should've answered it.
Before this game Pitino talked to his team about the ranking. He talked about U of L's basketball history and reminded his players that despite all its tradition, the program never had been ranked No. 1 during the regular season. Then he reminded of their road to No. 1.
"I told them to think about all the teams they've played," Pitino said. "Obviously, it's going to leave you at some point and the goal is to play for it at the end of the season. But I told them, 'Now that you have it, why don't you hold onto it for a while?'"
If the Cards continue to play defense like they did in the second half in Hartford, they might just do that.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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