"We had to leave no doubt," senior guard Jerry Smith said.
The Cardinals did just that with an 82-69 win over the Huskies in front of 19,655 fans at Freedom Hall and a national television audience.
Thanks to a fabulous first half, and a solid second half, UofL built a 19-point lead then held the Huskies at bay on their way to a 13-point victory on the heals of Saturday's heart-breaking loss at West Virginia.
"I think the true character of a personality of a ball club is not how you have fallen, but how you get up," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "And I think our team had great character tonight defensively the way we played. I thought we played brilliantly, we picked ourselves up off the mat after three really discouraging losses and played good basketball. It was fun to see that."
"(Pitino) said, ‘Play this game like this is the guy to go to the Final Four,'" senior guard Edgar Sosa added.
Led by the basket-attacking tandem of Sosa (15 points and eight assists) and Smith (14 points) the Cards (14-8, 5-4) continually got into the paint and when they weren't scoring they were driving and dishing off to teammates. Sophomore center Samardo Samuels added 13 points, despite not starting the second half due to three first-half fouls, and senior swingman Reginald Delk added 10 points for UofL, which shot 44.6 percent (29 of 65) from the field, including 48.6 percent in the first half.
"I told Rick after the game that they played the best offense they've played all year," said UConn associate head coach George Blaney, who was in his fifth straight of filling in for head coach Jim Calhoun, who is out for undisclosed medical reasons.
Sosa's three-pointer 3 minutes and 2 seconds into the game broke a 7-all tie and started a 4-minute surge in which the Cards outscored the Huskies (13-9, 3-6) 18-5. Smith added a rebound basket moments later and Kyle Kuric knocked down a three, on a feed from Sosa, as UofL scored eight straight.
"They're one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country," Sosa said of Uconn, which came in leading the nation with 8.9 blocks per game, "they pride themselves on that...so Jerry and I were just trying to go in there and make plays." Back-to-back threes by Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva capped the Cards' run and gave them a 25-12 lead with 13:52 left in the first half.
Smith scored all 14 of his points in the first half and his driving layup 41 seconds before intermission gave UofL a 48-34 lead. The Cards made 17 of 35 shots in the first 20 minutes and got a big boost off the bench from seldom-used Stephan Van Treese. The 6-foot-9 freshman forward from Indianapolis came on after Samuels picked up his third foul 7:34 before halftime.
"I didn't say anything to him (when he went in), I was just nauseous," Pitino said with a wink in his post-game press conference. "(But) we got a big lift from Stephan Van Treese...I think he ran everything well, ran well and blocked out."
Van Treese scored two points, on a nice pick-and-roll play with Sosa, and had one steal in six minutes of action. The collective defense of Van Treese and the rest of the Cards was a big reason why UConn shot just 25.9 percent (7 for 27) in the first half.
"We played great defense in the first half, we had 25 deflections," Pitino said.
The Huskies made several surges in the second half, but couldn't get closer than seven. A layup by Stanley Robinson pulled UConn within 73-66 with 8:49 remaining, but UofL answered with eight straight points. Sosa started the run with a pull-up jumper, after getting poked in the eye, then moments later he made a long outlet pass to Samuels for a dunk. Delk scored on a reverse layup, on a rare Terrence Jennings assist (only his sixth of the season) and Knowles capped it off with a pair of free throws.
Senior guard Jerome Dyson scored a game-high 18 points for the Huskies. Robinson added 14 points and 11 rebounds for UConn, which shot 37.5 percent (21 for 56) and had 18 turnovers but did make 23 of 28 free throws (82.1 percent).
Meanwhile UofL made 14 of 21 free throws (66.7 percent) but made up for that by hitting 10 of 22 three-point tries (45.5 percent). The Cards had just 10 turnovers and recorded eight blocks (two apiece by Delk, Samuels and Jared Swopshire) to the Huskies' three. Swopshire, who started the second half in place of Samuels, finished with nine points and nine rebounds in 32 minutes.
"When you get in as many wars, and come up empty, it's easy to put up a clunker, but we didn't," Pitino said. "I thought the guys played really smart, intelligent half-court basketball, and that's what we had to do tonight."
The Cards next host Rutgers (10-11, 1-8) at 4 p.m. Saturday.