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Louisville routs UConn, claims share of AAC title

The SportsXchange

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a game that was billed as a matchup between two of the top guards in the nation, Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell stole the show.

With neither Russ Smith of Louisville nor Shabazz Napier of Connecticut having a productive scoring outing, Harrell got 20 points, 11 rebounds and three assists as the No. 11 Cardinals thumped No. 19 UConn 81-48 Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.

Louisville (26-5, 15-3) claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship with No. 15 Cincinnati. A postgame coin flip went to Cincinnati and left Louisville with the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

Perhaps feeling the pressure from being called by coach Rick Pitino during Senior Day ceremonies before the game, "Pound for pound and inch for inch the best player in America," Smith had only one point in the first half.

Napier, also a senior, had only three points in the first half. Smith did have five assists and took only one shot in the half. Napier was 0-for-6 shooting and had four turnovers.

Smith finished with three points and Napier had nine, but Smith did have a career-high 13 assists. He took just two shots. Napier made just 2 of 13 shots, including 1 of 10 from 3-point range. He also made six turnovers as opposed to just one assist

Harrell, meanwhile, scored 15 of his points in the second half, when Louisville steadily pulled away from a 30-18 halftime lead. The sophomore forward. who has played extremely well in the second half of the season, also had a block and a steal.

"Montrezl has really improved -- his passing, his dribbling, his one-on-one moves," Pitino said. "He's gone from just being a dunker to a great all-around player. I think he'll be a mid-first-round draft pick. If it was up to me, I'd make him a lottery pick because of his potential."

Senior forward Luke Hancock added 16 points for Louisville. Junior forward Wayne Blackshear had 11 and junior guard Chris Jones scored 10. Senior center Stephan Van Treese scored six points and had 13 rebounds. Smith, who was constantly double-teamed and unable to get off a shot, instead looked for and found the open man.

"Russ is a great player," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. "He let the game play him. If everybody is loading up, he passes. That's what great players do. That's what All-Americans do. He's an All-American. I told my guys to pass. They don't pass. And that's why we ended up with a defeat like this."

Said Pitino: "Who would have thought a couple of years ago that Russ Smith would take only two shots and have 13 assists? He showed any NBA scouts that were here that he can play point guard."

Pitino was asked whether he had seen the anonymous quote by a West Coast Conference executive in Sports Illustrated that identified Smith as only a scorer who doesn't make his teammates better.

"Well, you know what I think of anonymous quotes," Pitino said. "Obviously, if he watched this game he's probably glad he was anonymous because then he would be the stupid Western Conference executive."

UConn (24-7, 12-6) was led by junior forward DeAndre Daniels with 17 points, but no other Huskies player reached double figures

"Louisville took advantage of everything we did," Ollie said. "We weren't ready to play. ... Coach Pitino coached a hell of a game, and those players played. They played like champions, and we didn't. I told the guys, 'If we play like that, then we have two games left in this season, and that's it.' Then they can go on spring break.

"I didn't see anything like this coming (the 33-point loss). And I'm glad it came because now we know how tough we have to be to be a champion. Louisville is a champion. We weren't tough enough. We weren't together enough. Louisville took advantage. That's what champions do. That's why they're champions."

Louisville, which never trailed, got way to a 13-3 lead and was ahead 30-18 at the break as Hancock had six points and Blackshear and Harrell added five each.

UConn was led by Daniels with eight in the first half, but no other Huskies player had more than three.

The Huskies drew to within 32-25 early in the second half, but Louisville went on a 12-2 run, with Jones getting five points and Harrell adding four.

UConn got no closer than 14 points thereafter.

Louisville wound up shooting 44.8 percent (26 of 58) and forced 22 turnovers, including 12 steals, four by Smith. Louisville had 12 turnovers. UConn made just 15 of 51 shots (29.4 percent). Napier and junior guard Ryan Boatwright combined to make only 4 of 24 shots, including 1 of 14 from 3-point range.

"That was our No. 1 goal -- to deny them the 3-point shot," Pitino said. "And we wanted to tire their guards out so they couldn't make shots. Our press was great.

"What a wonderful Senior Night. It was great that we played that kind of defense, and that's why we established so many great memories. The guys just played great basketball at both ends. They are a special class because for four years they totally did things for all the right reasons. They are throwback people. They are humble guys. ... The rest of the guys were all great."

Of upcoming postseason play and defending Louisville's national title, Pitino said: "I'm excited about it. With the defense playing the way we did tonight, we are a tough team. Tonight we played awesome."

NOTES: Louisville tied with Cincinnati for the AAC title but lost a coin toss and is the No, 2 seed for the conference tourney, which begins Tuesday in Memphis. The Cardinals received a bye and will play the winner of the USF-Rutgers game in the second round on Thursday. ... UConn, the No, 4 seed, also received a bye and will play No. 5 seed Memphis on Thursday. ... Of being tied with Cincinnati for the conference title, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said: "I'm delighted to be tied with Mick Cronin's team." Cronin was an assistant to Pitino at Louisville. ... It was Senior Day as Louisville honored G Russ Smith, F Luke Hancock, C Stephan VanTreese and G Tim Henderson before the game. Those four represent the winningest class in school history with 131 wins (against 30 losses) and counting.
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