LOUISVILLE — Louisville's feel-good season continued with a feel-good KFC Yum Center season finale against Providence on Wednesday night.
First, the 11th-ranked Cardinals wrapped up a double-bye in next week's Big East Tournament by dominating the Friars 87-60, and they did it in sensational fashion with an avalanche of highlight-reel plays and crowd-pleasing dunks.
Preston Knowles went out with a bang on his Senior Night, scoring 20 points, grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds and dishing out five assists.
He also showed he would be deadly in a game of "H-O-R-S-E," as he rebounded a Chris Smith miss under the rim with the clock ticking away in the first half and flipped in a no-look shot over his head at the buzzer to give the Cards a 45-35 halftime lead.
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"A lot of guys come out and play terrible on Senior Night because they're too jacked up or worried about themselves," Knowles said. "But I just tried to stay focused on the team, and I couldn't have drawn things up any better.''
And Louisville Coach Rick Pitino was pleased because the win allowed his team to reach his pre-conference goal of winning two out of every three conference games, breaking down the 18-game schedule into six segments.
"It was a wonderful night and a great way for Preston to go out," Pitino said. "We had a lot of spectacular plays, a lot of unselfish plays."
Louisville (23-7, 12-5 in the Big East) also put the clamps on the Big East's leading scorer, Marshon Brooks. Brooks lit up the Cards for 27 points in Providence's 72-67 upset win Jan. 22 that marked its first conference win in nearly a year. Fifteen NBA scouts were on hand in the KFC Yum Center to check out Brooks, but he finished with just 12 points, more than 13 below his average, and he shot 3-for-13 from the floor.
"We made up our minds tonight that we were not going to let him breathe," Pitino said.
Freshman guard Vincent Council, who finished with a team-high 20 points, scored seven quick ones in the opening two minutes as Providence (3-14, 14-16) jumped to a 14-9 lead. But the Friars' lack of defense and hustle eventually caught up with them.
U of L got open threes most of the night, and while most of them didn't go down (7-for-26), the Cardinals got to the rim seemingly at will. Louisville scored 30 of its 45 first-half points in the paint, and the second half turned into a dunk-fest that became a Louisville rout.
Gorgui Dieng's slam pushed Louisville's lead to 13 (60-47); Kyle Kuric followed a missed three from the corner with a layup and free throw for a three-point play, then added a transition dunk and a three from the right wing. Suddenly the margin was 19 (68-49) with 7:51 left.
"Our three wasn't going, so we did other things," Pitino said.
As good as Knowles' blind reverse flip shot was, it took a back seat to Peyton's Siva dramatic second-half assist when he stumbled, fell and lost the ball, dived on the floor and recovered it, and then whipped a pass from the seat of his pants to Kuric for a layup and 75-51 U of L lead with 5:36 left. Pitino said Siva had a gash on his forehead from the fall.
"That was as good a play as I've seen as a coach," Pitino said. "To dive head first after the ball and then make a perfect pass, that was incredible."
Kuric led the Cards with 25 points and nine boards. Siva scored only five points, but he grabbed six rebounds and dished out seven assists.
Louisville wrapped up a top finish in the Big East, which means they'll get to rest the first two days of the conference tourney in New York's Madison Square Garden.
The Cards close the season Saturday at West Virginia, and they have their sights set on at least a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And it's clear that this team is high on Pitino's list of all-time favorites.
"It was a great end to a great regular season," Pitino said. "We play hard, we play entertaining basketball, and there's no team that I'd rather go into that kind of environment (West Virginia) than this one."