LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In a game that was billed as a matchup between two of the top guards in the nation, Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell stole the show.
With neither Russ Smith of Louisville nor Shabazz Napier of Connecticut having a productive scoring outing, Harrell got 20 points, 11 rebounds and three assists as the No. 11 Cardinals thumped No. 19 UConn 81-48 Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.
Louisville (26-5, 15-3) claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship with No. 15 Cincinnati. A postgame coin flip went to Cincinnati and left Louisville with the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
Perhaps feeling the pressure from being called by coach Rick Pitino during Senior Day ceremonies before the game, “Pound for pound and inch for inch the best player in America,” Smith had only one point in the first half.
Napier, also a senior, had only three points in the first half. Smith did have five assists and took only one shot in the half. Napier was 0-for-6 shooting and had four turnovers.
Smith finished with three points and Napier had nine, but Smith did have a career-high 13 assists. He took just two shots. Napier made just 2 of 13 shots, including 1 of 10 from 3-point range. He also made six turnovers as opposed to just one assist
Harrell, meanwhile, scored 15 of his points in the second half, when Louisville steadily pulled away from a 30-18 halftime lead. The sophomore forward. who has played extremely well in the second half of the season, also had a block and a steal.
“Montrezl has really improved — his passing, his dribbling, his one-on-one moves,” Pitino said. “He’s gone from just being a dunker to a great all-around player. I think he’ll be a mid-first-round draft pick. If it was up to me, I’d make him a lottery pick because of his potential.”
Senior forward Luke Hancock added 16 points for Louisville. Junior forward Wayne Blackshear had 11 and junior guard Chris Jones scored 10. Senior center Stephan Van Treese scored six points and had 13 rebounds. Smith, who was constantly double-teamed and unable to get off a shot, instead looked for and found the open man.
“Russ is a great player,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. “He let the game play him. If everybody is loading up, he passes. That’s what great players do. That’s what All-Americans do. He’s an All-American. I told my guys to pass. They don’t pass. And that’s why we ended up with a defeat like this.”
Said Pitino: “Who would have thought a couple of years ago that Russ Smith would take only two shots and have 13 assists? He showed any NBA scouts that were here that he can play point guard.”
Pitino was asked whether he had seen the anonymous quote by a West Coast Conference executive in Sports Illustrated that identified Smith as only a scorer who doesn’t make his teammates better.
“Well, you know what I think of anonymous quotes,” Pitino said. “Obviously, if he watched this game he’s probably glad he was anonymous because then he would be the stupid Western Conference executive.”
UConn (24-7, 12-6) was led by junior forward DeAndre Daniels with 17 points, but no other Huskies player reached double figures
“Louisville took advantage of everything we did,” Ollie said. “We weren’t ready to play. … Coach Pitino coached a hell of a game, and those players played. They played like champions, and we didn’t. I told the guys, ‘If we play like that, then we have two games left in this season, and that’s it.’ Then they can go on spring break.
“I didn’t see anything like this coming (the 33-point loss). And I’m glad it came because now we know how tough we have to be to be a champion. Louisville is a champion. We weren’t tough enough. We weren’t together enough. Louisville took advantage. That’s what champions do. That’s why they’re champions.”
Louisville, which never trailed, got way to a 13-3 lead and was ahead 30-18 at the break as Hancock had six points and Blackshear and Harrell added five each.
UConn was led by Daniels with eight in the first half, but no other Huskies player had more than three.
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