- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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A breakdown of Louisville's impressive 73-58 win at UConn on Monday:
Turning point: The span between the two second-half TV timeouts.
For as well as UConn played in the first half, for as hard as the Huskies fought and for as impressively as they kept pace with the newly crowned No. 1 team in the country for much of this game, it always felt like Louisville was just a few stops and a few quick buckets from burying them and never looking back.
To UConn's credit, that moment didn't come until after the under-12 TV timeout in the second half. But when it happened, it happened fast. UConn guard Omar Calhoun had just knocked down three free throws to cut Louisville's lead to 47-44 when Peyton Siva found Chane Behanan for a bucket, followed by a 3 of his own. Gorgui Dieng got a quick dunk, and Luke Hancock finished an and-1 layup. Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, UConn guard Shabazz Napier whiffed on three straight 3-point attempts. Those misses led to the long rebounds and run-outs that helped Louisville get going.
By the time the under-8 timeout stopped play again, Louisville had built a three-point lead into a 57-44 advantage. The Huskies would score just seven more points until the final minute, by which point the game was fully over. It doesn't take much to fall far behind these Cardinals, but when you do, look out.
Why Louisville won: The Cardinals did what they do best: They dominated on defense.
Louisville is the nation's best overall defense -- entering Monday night's contest, the Cards were allowing just .81 points per possession to opponents -- and it's second-best (behind only VCU) at forcing opponents into turnovers and inducing steals. And like VCU, you see every bit of this when you watch the Cards play. Louisville pressures opponents relentlessly, extends its zone and man defenses as high as possible to make ball handlers uncomfortable, and rotates and collapses and slaps and claws better than any other group in the country. This has a couple of obvious benefits, traits Rick Pitino has long since made his college hoops calling card: It turns people over and gets Louisville easy buckets on the break, but just as important, it wears opponents down. By the time the second half comes around, those legs start to waver, those shots stop falling and Louisville -- just as it did Monday night -- ruthlessly twists the knife.
When UConn was knocking down shots and playing with energy in the first half, it could hang with the Cardinals and even outpace them at times. But when Napier, Ryan Boatright and Calhoun began to tire, the Huskies got sloppy, shots stopped going down and Louisville had won another Big East road game in trademark style.
Why UConn lost: It didn't make shots.
That sounds facile, I know, but it really is that simple. The Huskies are hardly the nation's best rebounding team. Their strength is not in their frontcourt. They have to rely on guard play from Napier, Boatright and Calhoun, and when that trio isn't carving up opposing defenses and knocking down not only 3s but 15-foot jumpers and floaters in the paint, UConn is going to struggle to score. When you throw that stifling Louisville perimeter defense in the mix, this was always going to be a tough matchup for Kevin Ollie's charges.
Their inability to stop Russ Smith in the first half didn't help, either. Louisville had struggled to score, UConn was essentially getting what it wanted and the only bright spot for the Cardinals was Smith's 15 first-half points (on 7-for-13 shooting). Had someone been able to keep Smith from doing his thing, Connecticut might have extended a lead that would have made it more difficult for Louisville to race to the eventual blowout margin it got in the second half.
What it means for the Cardinals: It means their arrival at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll -- for just the second time in school history (the other was 2008-09), a remarkable stat -- won't be painfully short-lived. Other than that, it's a nice Big East road win and another step on the road to the goal of a Big East regular-season title.
What it means for the Huskies: It's probably a missed opportunity, but because UConn can't participate in the NCAA tournament this season, it's not like the concern is a lack of marquee top-50 RPI wins or something. It's still a loss, but it's a loss without stakes beyond the personal -- beyond Ollie and his team's impressive internal competitiveness.
Number to know: 17-for-28. That's what the Cardinals shot in the second half. If you can keep them in the half court, you might have a chance. But if you start ringing shots off the rim and trying to chase down Smith and company on the break, you're in trouble.
What’s next: Both teams play Saturday, and it doesn't get any easier for either group. UConn has a road trip at Pittsburgh (which has already lost two Big East games at home this season but is nonetheless an unappetizing road opponent). Louisville will return to the Derby City to prepare for the arrival of Syracuse -- Louisville's clear top competition for the Big East title.