Terrence Jennings and Gorgui Dieng combined to give Louisville consistent inside production in the Cardinals 71-58 win over UConn. Peyton Siva kept Louisville running, while Chris Smith and Rakeem Buckles provided a spark off the bench.
But Louisville handled UConn for the second time this season for two main reasons – defense and rebounding. The Cardinals bounced back from a disappointing loss to Cincinnati in which they didn't force turnovers or dictate tempo with an excellent defensive performance against UConn.
"It was an awesome effort at the defensive end," Rick Pitino said. "I thought our defense was tremendous and we did a lot of smart things on offense, but our defense was brilliant.
The Cardinals also controlled the boards, out-rebounding UConn 40-36, while grabbing 17 offensive rebounds. Dieng, a 6-10 freshman, was a big factor. In the first game against the Huskies, Dieng didn't play and Louisville was out-rebounded 51-36. Friday night, Dieng grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds, providing a strong presence in the middle with Jennings saddled with foul problems.
Though it hasn't been their calling-card defensively this season, Louisville used an aggressive matchup zone designed to slow UConn guards Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. In Louisvile's double overtime win over Huskies last month, those three combined to score 64 of UConn's 78 points.
Friday night, Louisville held Lamb scoreless after he scored 21 points in the first game. The Cardinals also help Napier, who scored a game-high 23 points in UConn's earlier loss to UofL, to just four points. Most impressive, though, was the job Louisville did on Walker, one of the top guards in college basketball.
Two nights after torching Georgetown for 31 points, Louisville stalked, harassed and frustrated the junior guard. Yes, Walker finished with 16 points, but he made only 3 of 10 shots from the field. More importantly, the Cardinals limited his three-point opportunities. Walker had as many turnovers (3) against Louisville's pressure as he had three-point field goals attempts. He made only one three-pointer - a bank shot - against the Cardinals.
"Well we were going to obviously play him with two people at all times but we also paid enough attention to Lamb as we did to Walker," Pitino said. There were some games where we played good defense on their best player but we let the other guys go off. Like against Georgetown letting Chris Wright go off. But we did a good job all around.
"It was [good] team play. We play it [matchup zone] like a man but the traditional matchup zone plays below the top of the key. We play after the basketball pretty hard. It takes a lot of switching and paying attention to the basketball. The guys were great and it goes back to Steve Masiello. He puts in a good 24 hours of film work and he puts in a good preparation."
Louisville extended its lead late in the game with stifling defense. The Cardinals held UConn without a field goal for almost eight minutes in the second half (10:20 to 2:43), increasing a 7-point lead to 16.
"I thought the game was up for grabs- I felt that way the whole way until probably the last seven minutes," said Jim Calhoun. "They out worked us and outplayed us. The pressure got us a little bit. They did a really good job of pounding the boards and getting after loose balls."
With a big win over UConn, Louisville heads into the final four Big East with a chance to finish in the Top 4. This is what the league race has come down to for Louisville: The Cards, who still have to face Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Providence and West Virginia, are in a four-way tie with Villanova, St. John's and Georgetown for third place in the league standings behind Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Louisville needs to finish strong to receive a double-bye in next month's Big East Tournament.
"It's great that we're 9-5 but the best part about it is that we're playing terrific basketball," Pitino said. "The other night, we didn't play great, but it was really because of Cincinnati. They got us to play a certain style like DePaul did and Drexel did. And we weren't able to do it, we weren't able to play that way and we have to learn how to play that way. But our best games have been when we've got out on the break and we got out on a break [vs. Connecticut]."
If Louisville can build on their strong defensive performance against UConn, the Cards remaining Big East opponents might be in trouble.