MEMPHIS, Tenn. – If the No. 5 Louisville Cardinals are just getting warmed up, no one is going to want to be in their part of the NCAA bracket.
The Cardinals continued their dominating run to win the first American Athletic Conference tournament championship, defeating No. 21 Connecticut, 71-61, Saturday night at FedExForum.
That was enough for coach Rick Pitino to say the Cardinals (29-5) deserve a No. 1 seed.
“I judge it from the ‘I’ test,” Pitino said. “Do I think we should be? Yes. Do I think we will be? No.”
Forward Montrezl Harrell, who led Louisville with 22 points and 11 rebounds, had his own take on the postseason’s next chapter.
“We don’t care what we seed we get, we don’t care where we gotta go, we don’t care who we gotta play,” Harrell said.
The only certainty is that Louisville will not have a chance to repeat as conference tournament champs next season because the school will join the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
But the Cardinals, who were the AAC tourney’s No. 2 seed, left their mark. They beat Rutgers by 61 points in the quarterfinals and defeated Houston by 29 points in the semifinals.
In the two regular-season games before that, they beat then-No. 18 SMU by 13 points and crushed UConn by 33 points. During the five-game winning streak their average margin of victory has been 29.2 points.
The Cardinals look like they are peaking.
“Guys are buying in,” said guard Russ Smith, who scored 19 points with three assists and five steals and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “When it’s time to scout and learn about a team, guys are doing a great job.”
The No. 4 see in the AAC tournament, Connecticut (26-8) went 0-3 against Louisville this season and never led Saturday night.
A 14-point deficit at halftime became a 20-point margin at 15:37 of the second half when Cardinals guard Terry Rozier hit a 3-pointer for a 48-28 lead.
The final 10-point margin was close as the Huskies got in the second half.
“Anytime you spot a team like Louisville 14 points, it’s tough to come back,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “And you can’t give up 16 offensive rebounds and expect to win.”
DeAndre Daniels led UConn with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Shabazz Napier finished with 16 points and center Amida Brimah scored 14 points with seven rebounds.
The Huskies actually shot a higher percentage from the floor (44.4 percent to 41 percent), but they lost the rebounding battle 38-33 and Louisville had a 13-4 edge on points off turnovers and a 14-6 advantage in second-chance points.
Louisville seized control of the game with a 10-2 run at the end of the first half. Five of the points came in the last 34 seconds as forward Luke Hancock knocked down a three, and a steal by Smith led to a transition layup for guard Terry Rozier just before the buzzer.
That gave Louisville a 37-23 lead at the half.
Napier was at a loss to explain how the Huskies could go 3-0 against No. 19 Memphis Tigers and knock them out of this tournament on their home floor, yet Memphis could go 2-0 against Louisville, and Louisville could sweep UConn and win each of the three games by 10 or more points.
“When you lose one by 30 points, you have to look at yourself,” he said referring to the 81-48 loss at Louisville to end the regular season. “We played great against Memphis and we grinded one out against Cincinnati (in the semifinals).”
The Cardinals, who are the defending NCAA national champions, have now won12 straight postseason games, including winning last year’s Big East Tournament title.
Throughout this tournament, Pitino lauded his team for avoiding the “bad loss” or becoming complacent.
“The great thing about these guys is they play every team with great respect and that’s why they haven’t been upset this year,” Pitino said. “All the teams they lost to (North Carolina, Kentucky, Cincinnati and twice to Memphis) are good opponents. They play Houston as if they’re UCLA. They play Rutgers as if they’re Kentucky.”
And for the third time this season, they
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