LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—With Louisville’s top two rebounders out with injuries, coach Rick Pitino challenged freshman forward Juan Palacios to have a big game against IUPUI on Tuesday night, bad eye and all.
“I told him, ‘If you don’t play great, we’re in serious trouble,”’ Pitino said.
Palacios, who had a cornea scratched in last weekend’s loss to No. 8 Kentucky, responded with career-highs of 25 points and 10 rebounds in No. 18 Louisville’s 80-60 victory in the first round of the Billy Minardi Classic.
“I thought I wasn’t going to play for a week or so,” Palacios said, “but the eye heals quicker than other parts of the body.”
Louisville will play Austin Peay, a 91-73 winner over New Orleans, for the title on Wednesday night.
Taquan Dean added 20 points and Larry O’Bannon had 14 for the Cardinals (7-2), who played without Ellis Myles and Otis George. Pitino said Myles, Conference USA’s leading rebounder, is “day to day” with a hamstring injury and George is out 2 to 4 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot.
“This is a freak situation,” Pitino said. “When you’re still winning and you’re unlucky, then that’s good.”
The 6-foot-8 Palacios made sure the Cardinals didn’t need luck to win against IUPUI. Wearing protective goggles, Palacios went 9-of-12 from the field and 7-of-8 from the free throw line as Louisville gradually pulled away from the Jaguars (4-5).
“We’ve been kind of down about all of our injuries,” Palacios said. “But he (Pitino) told me I had to step up because of all the injuries. As I’ve gone along, I’m getting more confident every day.”
Akeem Clark hit seven 3-pointers and scored 23 points for IUPUI.
Despite its thin front line, Louisville had a 33-22 rebound advantage.
Individually, Palacios reached a rebound goal set by Pitino.
“He said I had to get at least 10 rebounds,” Palacios said. “He said I should be getting more rebounds, as big as I am.”
Desperate for big men, Pitino started 6-10 freshman Terrance Farley, who had played only 6 minutes all season. Farley was dismissed from the team and then reinstated last week after breaking unspecified rules.
Farley played 4 ineffective minutes on Tuesday, then went to the bench and did not return.
Pitino tinkered with sometimes odd-looking lineups the rest of the way. During one stretch, the tallest Cardinal on the floor was 6-6 Lorrenzo Wade, a freshman who had played only 46 minutes all season before Tuesday.
Pitino said the Jaguars helped the Cardinals by playing a matchup zone that left gaps for Louisville’s perimeter shooters.
“We knew we were going to struggle inside because we had to play with five guards in our offense, at times,” Pitino said. “We worked the ball around and did a lot of nice things.”
Louisville led 35-22 at halftime after going 6-of-12 from 3-point range. The Jaguars shot 32 percent (8-of-25) from the field and committed 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
“We’re a better shooting team than that,” IUPUI coach Ron Hunter said. “Some of our shooters just didn’t get going.”
Dean hit a 3-pointer and Palacios scored in the lane early in the second half, as Louisville pushed the lead to 19 points. The Jaguars got no closer than 13 after that.
The four-team Minardi Classic is named after Pitino’s brother-in-law, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
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