LOUISVILLE — This time the Louisville basketball team built a big lead and held on to it.
After blowing an 11-point in the last six minutes of a three-point loss at West Virginia on Saturday, the Cardinals jumped on UConn on Monday night and were able to seal the deal.
U of L executed with precision on offense, led by its senior backcourt of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, and cruised to a much-needed 82-69 win over the Huskies. Sosa played a solid floor game with 15 points and a season-high eight assists, and Smith delivered 14 points and five rebounds. Junior forward Samardo Samuels chipped in with 18, and Jared Swopshire added nine points and nine rebounds off the bench.
Louisville improved to 14-8 overall and 5-4 in the Big East as it continues to try and build its case for an NCAA Tournament bid, and it was a nice bounce back after a series of close, agonizing losses (Pittsburgh, Seton Hall, West Virginia).
"The true sign of character is when you get knocked down, how you get up," U of L Coach Rick Pitino said. "It was fun to see them not hang their heads, get tough, and dig in at both ends of the floor. When you get in so many wars and come up short, it's very easy to put in a clunker but we didn't do that."
The Cardinals made their first five three-pointers. UConn, meanwhile, hit just four of its first 18 shots. Freshman Peyton Siva hit a straightaway three to give the Cardinals a 25-12 lead.
U of L appeared to hit a roadblock when Samuels was sent to the bench after being whistled for his third foul with 7:34 left. And considering the fact that officiating has been a sore spot around Louisville after the Big East acknowledged mishandling a couple of key late calls in the West Virginia game, boo-birds began to ring loudly in Freedom Hall.
But Louisville was able to withstand the loss of Samuels, as the Huskies kept on bricking shots and Sosa took control with nine first-half points and five assists. He hit little-used freshman Stephen Van Treese on a pick-and-roll for a layup, and then drove and kicked it in the corner to Reginald Delk for a three that maintained the Cards' 13-point lead (38-25).
Smith then carried Louisville for the rest of the first half, scoring 14 points mainly on aggressive drives to the hoop. U of L led 48-34 at intermission. Smith has been struggling on threes this year (24 percent coming into the game) but has shown a willingness to take it to the hole and get fouled. He shot only two threes but was 4-for-9 from the floor and 5-for-7 from the line.
"Jerry's shooting woes have made him a better basketball player," Pitino said. "It's made him very aggressive driving the ball and given him an added dimension. Sometimes you get some good off a problem, and that was definitely the case with Jerry tonight."
There was no early second-half drop-off from the Cards, either. Swopshire, Preston Knowles, Sosa and Delk all hit threes in the first six minutes of the half, the last of which gave them a 66-47 cushion with 14:21 left.
UConn (13-9, 3-6), which was without Coach Jim Calhoun (health reasons) for the fifth straight game, did make a run toward the middle of the second half. Jerome Dyson, who played only nine first-half minutes after picking up two fouls, knocked down a pair of threes, and a Stanley Robinson basket brought the Huskies to within seven (73-66) with 9:20 remaining.
But the Cardinals scored the next six points, with Delk's backdoor reverse layup pushing the lead back to 13 with 4:38 left. UConn would get no closer.
"We jumped on them early, let it slip a little, but then refocused," Knowles said.
Louisville gets Rutgers (10-11, 1-8) at home on Saturday but still has two games with No. 3 Syracuse, a visit from No. 7 Georgetown and a return trip to UConn down the stretch.