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New No. 1 Louisville powers past Connecticut

The SportsXchange

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Rick Pitino wasn't able to deliver the big news himself.

Even the Louisville coach can't stop technology.

Just hours after learning through text messages and e-mails that they were the top-ranked team in the county for the first time in the regular season in school history, the Cardinals will remain there for at least a little while longer.

Russ Smith scored 23 points, Chane Behanan added 16 points and nine rebounds, and newly minted No. 1 Louisville overcame a 10-point, first-half deficit to protect its top ranking with a convincing 73-58 victory over upset-minded Connecticut on Monday night.

"I told them, I said, 'Look, you've played a very difficult schedule ... so you're deserving of that,'" said Pitino, whose team capitalized on weekend losses by Duke and Michigan to vault two spots in the Associated Press' Top 25 poll. "'Why don't you hold onto that for a while? It's going to leave you, and you're going to play for it at the end, which is the most important thing, but hold onto it for a while.'"

His message came through loud and clear.

The Cardinals (16-1, 4-0 Big East) won their 11th consecutive game since their only loss of the season to Duke on Nov. 24.

Louisville's Peyton Siva persevered through early foul trouble and a prolonged stint on the bench to score 11 points, and Gorgui Dieng finished with six points and 16 rebounds.

"We found out right when we got off the plane this morning," Siva said about the No. 1 ranking. "It's just great to have that, but it's kind of tough. I don't really like it because it puts a big bull's-eye on your back.

"But my team embraces it, they play with that chip on their shoulder, like they should be No. 1, and in the second half we proved it."

It's actually the second time Louisville has been No. 1, the only other occurrence coming in the final poll of the 2008-09 season.

"Louisville, with its great tradition, one of the top seven traditions in all of basketball, has never been No. 1," Pitino said. "I was blown away by that."

Freshman Omar Calhoun led the Huskies (12-4, 2-2) with 20 points, while Shabazz Napier scored 12 and Ryan Boatright had 11. UConn had won six of its last seven games, including a victory over then-No. 17 Notre Dame on Saturday, but it fell to 2-7 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams in the AP Top 25.

After shooting 53.8 percent (14 of 26) in the opening 20 minutes, the Huskies couldn't buy a bucket in the second half, going just 7 of 27 (25.9 percent) from the field. The Cardinals shot 60.7 percent (17 of 28) after the break, 50 percent (29 of 58) overall.

"They came out in the second half -- I don't know what Pitino said to them, but he must have said something. They played very, very hard in the second half," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "They're a great team, and they deserve to be No. 1."

Pitino said before the game that he thought "the top teams will play musical chairs for No. 1 for the next two months."

The Cardinals sat down just in time Monday.

They quickly turned a six-point halftime deficit into a five-point lead with a 19-5 run early in the second half. Smith scored four points, Siva added two, and a put-back from Behanan capped an 8-0 surge and tied the game at 36-36 with 17:10 remaining.

Calhoun and Smith traded treys before Louisville engineered another 7-0 spurt for a 46-41 lead with 14:29 left to play.

Three free throws by Calhoun at the 10:07 mark of the half helped the Huskies creep within 47-43, ending a span of 5:35 without a point.

That's as close as they'd get, though.

With the energetic crowd on its feet hoping to spur a comeback, Louisville kept its composure and promptly ran off 13 straight points to take its biggest lead of the night to that point at 60-44 with 7:49 left.

With the game all but out of reach, Boatright hit a 3-pointer from the left corner with 6:42 to play, ending a drought of nine minutes without a field goal for UConn.

"I didn't even notice. That's pretty impressive," Smith said of the Huskies' dry spell. "Give all the credit to Coach P and the guys who were on the floor that nine minutes."

Siva missed the final 16 minutes of the first half after being whistled for two fouls, but the Cardinals went into the locker room down by just six points.

"We did a good job of weathering a Peyton Siva storm with him out," Pitino said. "Once he came back and we weathered that storm, we were able to play much better defense and much better offense."

NOTES: Smith said he was sleeping all day but had a feeling his team would be No. 1. "It didn't really hype me up per se because I've been on losing teams, I've been on winning teams. So, I'm just more in the middle of everything." ... Monday's game was the 14th all-time meeting between the two schools ... Louisville's 16-1 start to the season is its best since opening the 2003-04 season at 16-1. ... Siva scored 17 points against South Florida on Saturday to become the Cardinals' 64th career 1,000-point scorer. ... UConn fell to 1-2 all-time at home against No. 1-ranked teams, having lost to Kansas in 1997 and beaten Texas in 2010. ... The Huskies slipped to 229-84 in regular-season games at the XL Center -- formerly the Hartford Civic Center. They are now 4-1 at the XL Center this season.
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