LOUISVILLE — How fitting that defense was the big difference Saturday in No. 11 Louisville's 81-48 thumping of No. 19 Connecticut.
Russ Smith, Stephan Van Treese, Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson — the winningest senior class in school history with 116 — went out in trademark style with a win that gave U of L a share of the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship.
"That was an awesome game for senior night, for four awesome guys," Coach Rick Pitino said. "It was great that we played that type of defense because that's why we've established so many of these great memories, and the guys just played great basketball at both ends. It's a special class."
The Cardinals (26-5, 15-3 AAC) left the floor with the conference trophy, to be shared by Cincinnati. A post-game coin flip gave Cincinnati the No. 1 seed in the AAC tournament. U of L, the 2 seed, will face seventh-seeded Rutgers or 10th-seeded South Florida on Thursday.
Could U of L, which won the Big East tourney last year, repeat as NCAA champion?
"Absolutely," Hancock said. "Definitely.
"I was confident both (years). You're not cocky and you know how hard you have to work and how good other teams are, and how you can get beat on any night. But I feel confident."
Montrezl Harrell, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who Pitino thinks will go in the next NBA draft, led U of L with 20 points and 11 rebounds. With five dunks, he increased his school-record season total to 83.
"I told you, I'm going to get 100," Harrell said, adding that Saturday was a "statement" game.
"We really zoned in on what we had to do, making sure that we stopped them on the defensive end, and that's what we did. And when we got out on the breaks, we really executed."
Hancock, going 4-for-7 from three-point distance, added 16 points. Wayne Blackshear added 11 and Chris Jones scored 10.
Van Treese snagged 13 rebounds and added six points. Smith, averaging 18 points, was held to three — but dished out 13 assists and made four steals.
The Cards, who have won nine of their last 10 games, also beat UConn 76-64 on Jan. 18.
The Huskies (24-7, 12-6), the No. 4 seed in the AAC tourney, were led by DeAndre Daniels with 17 points and eight rebounds.
Shabazz Napier, averaging 18.1 points, was held to nine on 2-for-13 shooting, 1-for-10 from three-point range.
Overall, UConn shot 15-for-51 (29.4 percent), 3 of 22 from long distance, and had 22 turnovers to U of L's 12.
"They took advantage of everything we did," UConn Coach Kevin Ollie said. "It was a bad-coached team, and I'm the first one. I'm on the front line. We weren't ready to play.
"The took advantage of everything. Coach Pitino coached a hell of a team and, then, players played. That's why they're defending champions. They played like champions and we didn't."
U of L, generating an average of 21.7 points a game off turnovers, held a 34-10 advantage in that category Saturday.
"With the defense tonight, that was pretty special," Pitino said. "Tonight on the break we were 15-for-18. ... When we get out there on the break, our percentage this year is incredible."
The Cards led from start to finish as UConn missed its first seven shots.
The rest was virtually a highlight reel.
Van Treese got the muscle play of the game with a strong put-back in the second half.
Hancock scored 10 straight points late with a free throw and three three-pointers.
Harrell had the gaudiest of the fast-break buckets, taking a behind-the-back pass from Smith and slamming for a 62-38 U of L lead.
But the offense started with great defense.
"We played a matchup, trapping zone and it was really tough to score against," Pitino said. "Because we took away the three-point shot completely until the end of the game, and when you have great players like Shabazz with no points and you look at their team and the volume of threes they shoot, and you don't give up a three, it was a pretty special defensive performance."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.