Cards Stay Perfect; Deal UNLV First Loss

No. 24 Louisville (8-0) trailed No. 20 UNLV by five at the half, fell behind by nine in the second half, before turning up the heat to beat the Rebels, 77-69, Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.

By his own admission, Chris Smith isn't an early-riser when he doesn't have to be.

He likes staying up late, and waking up late.

Saturday, though, Smith rose early, and rose to the occasion. The junior guard scored a season, and career-high, 17 points to earn most valuable player honors in the University of Louisville's 77-69 victory over UNLV in the Billy Minardi Classic in front of 22,489 at the KFC Yum! Center.

But Smith didn't do it alone. Senior guard Preston Knowles scored a game-high 20 points - all in the second half - while junior guard Kyle Kuric came back from a two-game absence because of a concussion to score 17 points and help the 24th-ranked Cardinals knock off the No. 20 Runnin' Rebels in their first real test since the season-opening victory over Butler.

"We beat a tremendous basketball team," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "We did a really good job in the second half of guarding them."

The unbeaten Cards (8-0) trailed by nine (45-36) early in the second half before outscoring UNLV 43-24 over the final 15 minutes, 48 seconds. They held the Runnin' Rebels (9-1), who came into the game ranked second nationally in the field goal percentage (53.9 percent), to one field goal over a span of 10:10 as UofL turned a two-point deficit (51-49) into a 13-point lead (70-57).

Chris Smith provided UofL a boost off the bench against UNLV.
"They made a couple of shots in transition there and cut in the lead pretty quickly," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger, whose team had won two straight games against the Cards. "We turned it over a time or two right there. They made the run and they kind of kept it going...They made a run, and we didn't handle it very well. They got a little momentum from that. When you're on the road especially, you have to try to curb those runs from the home team. We didn't do a very good job of slowing their runs down."

UofL erased that nine-point deficit in less than three minutes. Kuric hit a three, then Knowles hit a pull-up jumper before Oscar Bellfield's layup. Peyton Siva scored on a layup, then Knowles and Kuric each hit a pair of free throws. The last two tied the score at 49.

Justin Hawkins' basket gave the Runnin' Rebels the lead back, but only briefly. That's because Knowles took over.

The 6-foot-1 guard, who was one point shy of his career-high, scored eight straight as he sandwiched a pair of three-pointers around an inside basket.

"Basically I didn't want to let the team down," Knowles said.

He missed his only two field goal tries in the first half, but made 6 of 9 tries in the second half.

"When he plays like this everyone else feeds off him, he makes everybody else better," Kuric said.

Tre'Von Willis, who led UNLV with 17 points off the bench, sandwiched four free throws around a basket by Terrence Jennings to pull the Runnin' Rebels within four (59-55) before UofL's game-clinching 11-2 run.

Jennings started it with an inside hoop off a pass from Knowles, then Smith buried a three off another feed from Knowles. Derrick Jasper's dunk only slowed the Cards. Jennings hit two free throws, then Elisha Justice scored inside before Knowles capped the surge with a jumper.

"He is what Mike Marra needs - no conscience," Pitino said. "He doesn't think. Preston doesn't think at all, and shooters can't think. You have to take open shots and drive when you are covered. Without the basketball Mike is thinking, but Preston doesn't think about shooting."

He fouled out shortly thereafter and left the court by giving the giant Cardinal at halfcourt a slap.

"It was a lot of fun out there," Knowles said.

"Preston Knowles had a big second half," Kruger said. "He made good plays and did a really good job."

While Knowles carried the Cards in the second half, Smith (13 points) and Kuric (nine points) did so in the first half.

UofL missed its first eight shot attempts, five by Marra, and fell behind 9-2 before Pitino went to his bench. Smith hit a three in between a pair of UNLV trifectas before Louisville ran off eight straight on baskets by Smith and George Goode, a three from Kuric and a free throw by Siva to take their first lead, 13-12.

It remained tight until the end of the first half. Trailing 18-17 UofL scored five in a row on a layup by Smith and a three from Kuric.

"Every time we came down the court they said, ‘Kyle stand in the corner,' and I did," said Kuric, who was 3 for 5 from long range in the first half.

UNLV retook the lead briefly before Kuric hit another three to make it 25-23.

"I knew he'd give us a Syracuse game, I was positive," Pitino quipped afterwards on the type of contribution he expected from Kuric, who scored a career-high 22 points against the Orange last season in the final game in Freedom Hall.

Hawkins then hit a three, before Smith answered with one of his own before Bellfield hit one too. But moments later Smith put back a Siva missed free throw then hit one foul shot of his own to give the Cards a 32-30 lead.

"I feel like I played pretty well, I played within myself," Smith said.

In addition to his 17 points Smith, a transfer from Manhattan, also finished with six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals.

"He did everything," Pitino said. "He gave us big blocked shots. You know he came in here not understanding how to play. He averaged 5.4 rebounds per game at Manhattan, but if you look at his shooting percentage it was 36 and 29 (percent). He really didn't know how to play. His shot had a little side spin. He's really improved his shooting and really worked on the fundamentals of the game . It has made him a better basketball player. I don't think he ever had any intention of playing defense in his life. In coming here he has had to do it and it has made him a much better basketball player."

The Runnin' Rebels outscored the Cardinals 8-1 over the final 2:12 of the first half to lead 38-33 at intermission, then scored seven of the first 10 of the second half to lead by nine. But that was before Louisville's rally.

"I think we proved something to ourselves," said Siva, who finished with nine points and seven assists. "We pulled together as a team, that we could stay together."

The Cards shot 54.2 percent (13 of 24) in the second half against a UNLV team that came in ninth nationally in field goal percentage defense (36 percent). They also held the Runnin' Rebels to nine second-half field goals, including 1 of 5 on three-pointers, and 10 turnovers.

"This is a bridge team, we're building something for the future, but the future could be this year," Pitino said.

Louisville next hosts Drexel on Tuesday night.

"If we don't bring it against Drexel we won't beat them," Pitino said. "Drexel is a very good basketball team."

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