LOUISVILLE — Noting that his team had no starters returning, except the still-injured Jared Swopshire, Coach Rick Pitino said during the pre-season that this is a "bridge year" for his Louisville Cardinals.
A bridge to success, it seems, as U of L came from behind to defeat UNLV 77-69 in Saturday's Billy Minardi Classic.
A KFC Yum Center crowd of 22,489 saw the Cardinals prevail in a match of unbeatens. No. 24 U of L is 8-0, all the wins coming at home.
"I think it's a bridge team," Pitino said again Saturday. "We're building something for the future. But the future could be this year. ... This team probably has the best attitude of any team since I've been here, top to bottom."
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The Cards, pledging an all-for-one attitude, are off to their best start since going 10-0 in the 1996-97 season.
"The big thing with us, it's not just one player," said Kyle Kuric, who came off the bench to score 17 points. "Everything is as a team, so everything we do is together. We go out there and play together and that's where we get our edge, and that's how we beat teams."
No. 20 UNLV (9-1) led 45-36 with 16:50 left.
U of L went on a 13-4 run to tie at 49, took the lead for keeps, 52-51, on a three-pointer and built a 70-57 lead with a field goal with 3:06 left. All three of those bookmark baskets came from the team's lone senior starter, former Clark County standout Preston Knowles.
The 6-foot-1 sharpshooter finished with 20 points, all in the second half.
"My thing was getting the lead back and just putting my team in a position to win," Knowles said. "That's all I focused on."
Two early fouls limited him to eight minutes and two missed shots in the first half.
In fact, point guard Peyton Siva was the only U of L starter to score in the half, getting seven.
Game MVP Chris Smith came off the bench to score 13 of his 17 points in the first half. Kuric came in to hit three first-half three-pointers. Smith finished with six rebounds, Kuric with five.
Siva finished with nine points and a career-high seven assists. Terrence Jennings scored all of his six points in the last 8:08 and led U of L in rebounds with seven.
"I feel like we proved to the country, maybe, that we're becoming a good basketball team," said Smith, a 6-2 junior who transferred from Manhattan. "I mean, they're a great team, so I would assume that would make us good at least."
Oscar Bellfield made four three-pointers and led UNLV with 16 points. Derrick Jasper, a 6-6 senior who began his collegiate career at Kentucky, added 10 points. Anthony Marshall totaled nine points and 11 rebounds.
The Rebels closed the first half with an 8-1 run to take a 38-33 lead.
U of L shot 11-for-34 (32.4 percent) in the half, with Mike Marra going 0-for-8.
Once UNLV built its nine-point lead in the second half, Kuric kick-started the rally with a three-pointer from the corner by the U of L bench.
"That's always been my favorite spot ever since I was little, the corner," the 6-4 junior said.
Then, it was Knowles' time. He scored half of Louisville's points in a 34-12 stretch that turned a 45-36 deficit into a 70-57 lead.
"We stick together, and that's what we hang our hat on," Knowles said.
While Knowles was lighting it up on offense, the Cards were buckling down on D.
"They got us standing around a little bit in the second half," UNLV Coach Lon Kruger said. "They played that zone a lot and they were good at it. It's not like we're attacking a defense that's not very sound in what they do."
"We beat a tremendous basketball team," Pitino said. "We have been preparing for them for a long time. Their pressure, they force turnovers better than anyone else in the country. They can play five guards and kill you."
UNLV committed 18 turnovers. Every U of L foe this season has had at least 16.
The Cards, though, finished with 11 turnovers and 13 assists. Over their last three games, they have 50 assists to 24 turnovers.
Pitino attributed Saturday's ball-care to "good spacing."
"We worked against their pressure quite a bit and bring all of the guys up, but then get them out of there quick. Then when traps come, space, look for the back door and look for the three."