STORRS, Conn. (WDRB) — Before the season started, the University of Louisville basketball team was supposed to be stocked. Coach Rick Pitino talked of a 10-player rotation. It was going to be an up-tempo onslaught — with national championship experience. Pitino used the word dynasty.
Then Kevin Ware's leg didn't hold out. And Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team. Chris Jones has a strained oblique muscle. And all of a sudden, Pitino was telling his players to forget about the shadow of the championship season. All of a sudden, in a game they sorely needed with ESPN's College GameDay crew at Connecticut and Huskies' fans frothing for their last chance at Louisville in a long, long time, Pitino had basically a seven-man rotation, and was shuffling his Cards again. Tim Henderson went from walk-on novelty act to scholarship player being asked to play tough minutes. Freshman Terry Rozier went from understudy to running the team for 30-plus minutes.
In number, if not style, it resembles more the Cards' 2005 Final Four team than last year's title team. Three games ago, Pitino decided to go with a smaller lineup. Since then, the Cardinals have been putting things together, learning a new way of playing. At UConn Saturday night, Pitino's few good men continued their defensive improvement in the lane, while posting a sizable rebounding advantage to beat UConn 76-64 before a crowd of 10,167 in the Huskies' Gampel Pavilion.
In areas where they've been pummeled all season, the Cards put up big numbers. They outscored UConn 40-20 in the paint. Their edge in second-chance points was 15-6. They made only three three-pointers, but shot 53 percent from two-point range. They outrebounded UConn 45-30.
Outside the Cardinals' postgame locker room, applause could be heard from inside. Once. Twice. Three times. Raucous shouts. Pitino, leading the cheers. "How ‘bout them Cardinals?" Fanning the enthusiasm, his theme of the month after losing at home to Memphis. A year ago it was "have humility." At the moment, it's "have passion."
"We went back to our game plan of two years ago," Pitino said. "We got out the old playbook that we used two years ago to beat them. We used a press, but only to slow them down. We weren't looking for steals, then we dropped back into our matchup zone, and Montrezl Harrell had his best game as a Cardinal."
The move worked. UConn took its time beating the pressure. It made just three or four passes, rarely even looking inside. By them the shot clock was winding down and a guard would call for the high screen. By the time they started driving to score in the second half, it was all but too late.
The win was Louisville's fourth win in its last five appearances on ESPN's GameDay stage, with the only loss being the five-overtime thriller at Notre Dame last season. Only one of those games was at home.
On Saturday, it was a big night from Harrell that led the Cards, with late support from Russ Smith. Harrell had 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 13 rebounds. Smith scored 18 points in the game's final 14 minutes, including 13 of the Cards' final 14 to close out the win. Luke Hancock added 13 points.
"I think what you've seen is the experienced guys on this team really step up," Smith said. "Luke has really worked on his defense and rebounding, and we've all talked to the young guys about playing on the road in tough environments. But these freshmen, Terry Rozier and Mangok Mathiang, are doing a great job stepping up where we need them."
The Cards poured into the paint for their first 10 points of the game to get out to an early lead, and held the advantage for the entire first half. UConn opened the second half with a run, scoring the first seven points to tie the score at 34. Pitino immediately called timeout, and Hancock responded with a three pointer that started the Cards on their own 8-0 run.
The Cards were up nine when UConn's Niels Giffey drew Wayne Blackshear off the ground with a three-point shot fake, took a dribble under him and then turned the ball over after he and Blackshear bumped on the shot. When the referees didn't call a foul, UConn coach Kevin Ollie went ballistic, quickly drawing a technical foul, then a second one from referee Mike Stuart. Ollie stalked him down the court on the way out of the arena, as the crowd fumed.
"In that situation, I lost my composure," Ollie said after the game. "I told my guys that, in the heat of the moment, you can't lose your composure. I did that, and we're going to move on from it."
"I just thought it was a foul," he added. "Niels is a pretty good shooter. He went up and, you know, got hit in the shoulder or the arm. Then, coming back, Shabazz (Napier) does the same thing later on and they didn't call that foul. It happens, and we're going to go from there."
The Cards, up nine at that point, with 9:03 left, missed two of the technical foul free throws, then got two makes from Russ Smith and pushed their lead up to 16 points before UConn made a bid late, closing to within seven points in the final two minutes. But the Huskies could get no closer.
Asking his team to protect the lead late, Pitino put the ball into Smith's hands.
"Russ was out of his mind," Pitino said. "I said it five times, ‘Bring it out Russ, bring it out Russ, bring it out Russ, bring it out Russ,' finally on the fifth time, he brings it out. And he tells me, ‘I was just probing.'"
Here's what the win means for the Cardinals: It sets them up to gain momentum. They travel to South Florida on Wednesday before getting eight days off to prepare for a home game against Cincinnati. In February, the schedule eases up. They'll play five straight opponents, none of whom are ranked in the top 140 in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. The schedule strength won't blow anyone away. But it will give the Cards a chance to tweak who they are. It's a fragile momentum. If Harrell gets into foul trouble or the Cards' sustain another injury, they'll be in trouble. (Wayne Blackshear, who finished with nine points, went down hard on his left hip late, but trainers said it was only a bruise.) But if they get healthy, the schedule also affords them a chance to be playing their best when they play three of the league's top teams — Cincinnati, SMU and Memphis — on the road in the final two weeks of the season, before wrapping up at home against Connecticut.
"I'm really excited with this road victory," Pitino said. "Every time we outrebound our opponent, we win, like, 95 percent of our games. Unfortunately, we've only done that a few times. Tonight we really stepped up our rebounding and played through Montrezl Harrell, who over the past three weeks has really, really improved his low-post game, has done an enormous amount of work on his footwork, and he deserves a lot of credit for working that hard."
Shabazz Napier scored a game-high 30 points, and drew praise from Pitino after the game.
"He's a great shooter, and then if you put him to the line on his drives, he doesn't miss," Pitino said. "He's really made himself into a great point guard."
There are, of course, areas for improvement. Russ Smith was 12 of 15 at the free-throw line but the rest of the team was 9 for 18. Blackshear was 4 of 10 from the field but missed four straight free throws, and he was shooting better than 80 percent from the line coming in. Five players — Harrell (39), Rozier (33), Smith (34), Blackshear (27) and Hancock (27) played 75 percent of the team's minutes and did 89 percent of the scoring. The preseason depth is gone.