HARTFORD, Conn. -- Top-ranked Louisville treated Monday’s game against Connecticut as just another business trip. Fog in the Hartford area prevented the Cardinals from flying in on Sunday, so Louisville spent only about eight hours in hostile territory.
When the Cardinals finally did arrive Monday afternoon, coach Rick Pitino said technology quickly made his players aware they had moved to the top of the Associated Press rankings for only the second time in school history.
Pitino wanted to make sure that wasn’t a short stay too.
“People text everything, so they knew,” Pitino said. “[I told them] why don’t you hold on to that for a little while? It’s going to leave you, but you’re going to play for it at the end, which is the most important thing.”
In the second half Monday, the Cardinals showed why they should be playing for a national championship at the Final Four in Atlanta. Louisville (16-1, 4-0 Big East) almost let that No. 1 ranking slip away quickly, but Russ Smith scored 23 points, Chane Behanan had six points and 16 rebounds and the Cardinals put together an extremely impressive second half to rally for a 73-58 victory over UConn (12-4, 2-2) before 14,287 at the XL Center.
It came as no surprise that point guard Peyton Siva made the difference in the second half. The preseason Big East Player of the Year picked up two quick fouls to start the game and sat on the bench for 16 minutes as UConn constructed a 10-point lead in the first half. But he was the architect of all things good in the final 20 minutes.
“It was terrible on the bench,” said Siva, who finished with 11 points, four assists and three steals in 22 minutes. “I didn’t feel like I was there to help my teammates out. Then I snapped out of it, tried to give them some encouraging words, and I knew in the second half, it was going to be a whole different half. I told my teammates I apologize for those two fouls and getting them in that situation.”
The Huskies, who shot 53.8 percent in the first half, hit only 7-of-27 shots in the second half. UConn went nine minutes without a field goal during one stretch after halftime and scored just three field goals in the first 13 minutes as Louisville pulled ahead 60-44 after trailing 34-28 at the break.
Louisville's Luke Hancock goes up for a shot during Monday's game against UConn.
“They pressed us, we gave up the basketball -- we had 10 turnovers in the second half,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We didn’t handle their pressure. Give credit to Louisville. They’re a great team and they deserve to be No. 1. Siva and Ross are two damn good guards and they put pressure on our offense and our defensive side the whole night.”
Freshman guard Omar Calhoun led the Huskies with 20 points but he had six of UConn’s 17 turnovers. The Cardinals used their full-court pressure and 2-3 zone to hold UConn’s top two scorers -- Shabazz Napier (12 points) and Ryan Boatright (11) in check.
“We did a good job of weathering a Peyton Siva storm with him out,” Pitino said. “Once he came back, and we weathered that storm, we were able to play much better defense and much better offense.
“Our goal was to limit them to one shot and not let Napier and Boatright have good looks. We found that in the last 10 minutes of play, 82 percent of their shots come from Napier and Boatright. At the end, we just wanted to make sure they didn’t beat us.”
Smith scored 15 of his 23 points in the first half. He finished 10-of-20 from the floor and held the Cardinals together with Siva on the bench.
“I was just picking my spots, creating some shots for myself, trying to get some movement,” Smith said. “I also tried to run some plays and go into the pick and roll. I didn’t just take the first pick and roll. Coach and I have talked about letting the game come to me.”
Siva, who orchestrated Louisville’s postseason run to the 2012 Final Four, picked up his second foul with 16:13 left in the first half. Pitino decided to ride it out without his point guard, even when the Cardinals got messy with the ball on offense.
“I knew we had a better chance with Siva on the floor,” Smith said. “Everyone knows that. He’s the focal point of our offense.”
The only other time Louisville has been ranked No. 1 in the regular season was the final poll of the 2008-09 season. Siva said his teammates were happy with the rise to the top after Duke and Michigan lost over the weekend. But Siva didn’t exactly share their joy.
“I don’t really like the No. 1 ranking, just because it puts a big bulls eye on your back,” Siva said. “But it’s a great honor to be in that position. We’ve just got to continue playing that way.”
The UConn players will testify to Louisville’s greatness. The Huskies won Saturday at No. 20 Notre Dame. But the way momentum changed with Siva in the game in the second half, the Huskies won’t be surprised if the Cardinals remain on top the remainder of the regular season.
“They’re strong and quick,” Calhoun said. “They’re always moving and active. They move like they’re on a string. You always have to be aware and watch what you’re doing against them.
"You ain't going to play any team better than that."