The University of Louisville claimed its fourth straight victory over Connecticut, humbling the Huskies 71-58 Friday night in front of 22,776 fans at the KFC Yum! Center to complete a Big East-regular-season sweep.
Sophomore point guard Peyton Siva had 15 points and six steals, while freshman center Gorgui Dieng went for 13 points and 12 rebounds off the bench in one of the best defensive performances of the season for UofL (20-7, 9-5 in the Big East), which is now tied for third in the conference with Georgetown.
"I'm really proud of our guys, it was an awesome effort at the defensive end, we did a lot of great things in the second half," said UofL coach Rick Pitino, whose team is ranked No. 16 in both national polls (AP Top 25 and ESPN/USA Today Coaches). "On the offensive end I thought Gorgui gave us a big, gigantic lift on the backboard, but out defense was brilliant."
"Kemba Walker is a very good player, and we shut him down," Dieng said.
Walker scored only five points in the first half, when Connecticut shot just 31.8 percent (7-for-22) from the field.
Things started off well for UofL. Jennings hit three quick shots to give the Cards a 6-2 lead at the first TV timeout, during which the Yum! Center overhead scoreboard flashed on the screen a fan in a giant bear outfit holding up a sign that said, "Bearrence Jennings."
The junior center continued to be a bear early on. Moments later his one-handed tip of a Kyle Kuric miss put the Cards up 10-4.
Preston Knowles followed with a jumper to make it 12-4 eight minutes into the game.
Louisville continued to build its lead, while UConn continued to struggle to shoot the ball. Knowles' 3-pointer - the first of the game - gave the Cards a 22-10 lead with 5:57 to play in the first half. At that point the Huskies were shooting a paltry 25 percent from the field. It would get a little bit better.
UConn hit three three-pointers in a row - the first two sandwiched abut Siva's steal and 360-degree dunk - to cut into the Cards' lead. Walker's first field goal - a banked in trifecta - made Pitino turn to the scorer's table and throw his hands to the ground. The Huskies had a chance to get closer, but forward Roscoe Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity before Chris Smith hit a big three-pointer for Louisville.
UofL's Smith finished with 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench in front of his older brother, J.R., a star guard for the Denver Nuggets, who was wearing a shirt with his brother's likeness and his number "5" on it.
Connecticut went the final 4:12 of the first half without a field goal, although the Huskies did hit four free throws, to trail 31-23 at intermission.
But UConn, which came in No. 12 in ESPN/USA Today and No. 13 in AP, rallied. The Huskies scored the first eight points of the second half, taking a 32-31 lead on Alex Oriakhi's rebound basket. UofL had the answer, though. Kuric hit back-to-back threes, off feeds from Siva, before the Cards' point guard hit a three of his own off an assist from Dieng.
Walker's two free throws, which came on the heels of Rakeem Buckles' fourth foul, pulled Connecticut within 50-44 with 8:20 to play.
However the Cards responded once again, this time with an 8-2 spurt. Dieng scored off a pass from Knowles before Smith hit two free throws and a layup. Dieng capped the surge with a rim-rattling dunk off a nice feed from Siva, who had drawn two defenders to himself as he went up for a layup.
A technical foul on Knowles ("He was doing something with the band," Pitino said. "And if we would have lost the game he would be in the band") moments later helped the Huskies pull within nine, 59-50. On UofL's next possession, though, Dieng converted a conventional three-point play off a pass from Knowles with 5:15 remaining. It was the first of four assists for the Cards' senior captain over the next three minutes as Louisville's lead grew to 71-55. Knowles recorded six of his game-high seven assists in the second half.
Walker, meanwhile, also got whistled for a technical late in the game when his frustration over a lack of a call by the referees got the better of him.
"Louisville did a good job of controlling him, but they didn‘t have to because he did it to himself," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.
"Kemba Walker is one of the best players in the country, but this wasn't his best game mentally. His frustration showed a little bit. He is a great kid, one of the greatest I've ever coached. The bottom line is I didn't feel anyone did anything special for us. They paid attention to him, but Georgetown (UConn's last foe) paid a little attention to him, and Georgetown is a Top 10 team. Clearly, something has to be said though about what Louisville did."
Buckles added nine points off the bench, while Stephan Van Treese corralled seven rebounds for the Cards, who play at Rutgers at 9:05 p.m. Tuesday night.
"This puts us in a good position to get a good seed in the Big East Tournament," Jennings said. "(And) it shows if we come out and play the right defense, and come out with the right attitude, it shows how far we can go."