LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—The way Louisville forward Francisco Garcia was passing, his teammates knew to keep an eye on him.
Garcia set a Louisville record with 15 assists Saturday to lead the 11th-ranked Cardinals to a 91-69 victory over Murray State.
Luke Whitehead scored 23 points and Larry O’Bannon had a career-high 20 for the Cardinals (9-1), who won their 23rd consecutive home game against a nonconference opponent.
O’Bannon scored four baskets off assists from Garcia, whose previous high assist total was eight.
“If you’re not looking from the ball, he’ll hit you right in the head,” O’Bannon said. “Then, he’ll give you an earful about it.”
Whitehead was the recipient of five Garcia assists.
“You’ve just got to be ready at any given time because the ball could be coming to you,” he said.
Garcia wasn’t keeping track of how many assists he had or that he was getting close to the school record set by Phil Bond in 1977.
“I was just having fun passing to teammates. They were doing a great job of getting open,” said Garcia, who scored 17 points and led Louisville with seven rebounds.
Kelvin Brown had 17 points to lead four double-figure scorers for the Racers (10-2), who shot 43 percent but went only 2-for-17 (12 percent) from 3-point range.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino improved to 16-1—and 4-0 this season— against ex-assistants who have become head coaches. First-year Murray State coach Mick Cronin was Pitino’s top assistant the past two years.
“We had to work harder in this game than we’ve had to work in any game this season,” Pitino said. “They are extremely well-coached. I’m proud of Mick.”
The Cardinals missed their first five shots, but made their next four to take an 8-2 lead. The Racers answered with a 7-2 spurt and stayed close the rest of the first half.
The lead changed hands seven times in the final 6:19 before halftime, and Kevin Paschel’s layup just before time expired gave the Racers a 37-35 lead— Louisville’s first halftime deficit in Freedom Hall since it trailed UAB 37-35 in last year’s Conference USA championship game.
The Cardinals started the second half with a 17-4 burst, which included two 3-pointers and a rebound basket by O’Bannon.
“He stuck a dagger in my heart with those shots,” Cronin said.
Garcia had seven assists at halftime, then had four during the decisive spurt.
“In the first half, four guys were standing around watching Francisco too much,” Pitino said. “In the second half, we started cutting and Francisco would find people.”
Louisville forced five Murray State turnovers in the first four minutes after halftime.
The Racers stayed within 12 until Taquan Dean hit his second 3-pointer of the game with 6:38 left. Kendall Dartez sank a free throw and made a turnaround bank shot to give Louisville a 75-57 lead.
Garcia tied Louisville’s single-game assist record on O’Bannon’s layup with 5:56 left. He broke the record with 3:45 left, finding Whitehead underneath for a layup.
“I like the way we’re playing,” Garcia said. “We need to keep playing together like this.”
Garcia hyperextended his left knee late in the first half of Louisville’s last game, a 92-56 win over Toledo on Tuesday. He didn’t return, but the Cardinals still had 20 assists.
“He saw how well the team passed when he sat out,” Pitino said. “He wanted to be a part of that. He had an unbelievable night because of it. That kind of passing fosters great chemistry.”
Louisville scored 30 points off 23 Murray State turnovers.