January 15, 2013
Peyton Siva doesn't particularly like Louisville's latest national ranking. The Cardinals' senior point guard doesn't like the view from on top, doesn't like looking down at the rest of college basketball, not in January anyway.
But Siva really hated the view from the Louisville bench for the final 16 minutes, 13 seconds of the first half Monday night at the XL Center. He picked up two quick fouls. Sloppy, over-zealous, whatever you want to call them, but before you knew it UConn had a 10-point lead on the No. 1 team in the nation, 14,287 fans were rocking and something special seemed to brewing.
"It was terrible on the bench," the Big East preseason player of the year said after the Cardinals suffocated UConn in the second half for a 73-58 victory. "I apologized to my team for getting into that situation with those two quick fouls. I made stupid fouls. I was too anxious.
"In the second half, I just went out there and didn't worry about it. I tried to play smarter. I was determined to pick the team back up and help them out."
There were moments in the second half went it looked as if the Huskies had trouble breathing. They turned one way. There was a Cardinal. They turned another way. There was a Cardinal. They turned back and there were two more Cardinals.
Sure, Louisville's press is daunting. It caused turnovers. It caused headaches. But so, too, was its half-court zone defense. The Huskies couldn't get into the middle of that zone like they had in the first half. The Cardinals got a bunch of deflections and steals. There was a nine-minute stretch where the Huskies didn't score a field goal, including one 10-possession stretch when they didn't score a point.
Make no mistake. It was basketball asphyxiation.
"Our goal was to limit them to one shot and not let [Shabazz] Napier and [Ryan] Boatright have good looks," coach Rick Pitino said. "When you do that you obviously are going to give a young man like Omar Calhoun [space], but we found in the last 10 minutes of play 82 percent of their shots are from Napier and Boatright. In the end, we just wanted to make sure they didn't beat us."
Leave it to Pitino to come up with a stat like that. Look, Napier and Boatright are a terrific combination. Siva and Pitino called them one of the premier backcourts in the nation. We also saw Louisville had an answer.
"We held Shabazz to two points in the second half," said Siva, who finished with 11 points and four assists. "Omar Calhoun went off for them for 20, but as long as we contained those other two, we knew we'd be all right."
Because of the fog conditions Sunday night, Louisville didn't get in until 2 p.m. Monday. Texts, iPhones, word travels fast these days. Siva said as soon as the chartered flight landed, he heard about Louisville's ascension to No. 1 in the nation.
"I don't really like the No 1 ranking, because it puts a big bulls-eye on your back," Siva said. "[The rest of the guys] love the No. 1 ranking. They play with that chip on their shoulder."
"Louisville, with its great tradition, one of the top seven traditions in all of basketball, has never been No. 1 in the regular season," Pitino said. "I was blown away by that. Thinking of the reasons why, I'd say probably UCLA, Carolina or Kentucky hung onto it during those times. Also Denny Crum played the toughest schedule in all of basketball. It would be difficult to be No. 1."
To be precise, this was the second time the Cardinals had the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll. They were No. 1 in the final regular season ranking in 2008-2009. Still, with two national titles and nine Final Fours, it is amazing Louisville has never been No. 1 more often.
"I told our guys, 'You play a very difficult schedule. We've already played Northern Iowa, Missouri, Duke, at Memphis, at Charleston, a lot of road games. You're very deserving of it. Why don't you hold onto it for a while? It's going to leave you. But you're going to play for it at the end and that's the most important thing, but hold onto it for a while.'"
And so they did on this night, holding UConn to 25.9 shooting in the second half, while shooting 60.7 percent themselves. Boatright and Napier are fast. So are Siva and Russ Smith [who finished with 23 points]. Electric, Napier called them. And with Gorgui Dieng pulling in 16 rebounds, well, if the Cardinals play like they did in the second half, they are going to be a heck of a tough out in March.
"Connecticut certainly has been playing great basketball," Pitino said. "We did a good job of weathering a storm with [Siva] out. "Once he came back, we played much better defense and much better offense.
"Defense is, believe it or not, 50 percent cerebral. It is knowing what the other team is going to do. It's not just energy. We played great when it counted. I've seen Kobe and Michael and LeBron have terrible games for three quarters and then take over in the fourth quarter. That's what great players do. We weathered a big storm. We battled a hostile environment against a team that's playing great."
The Cardinals focused on Boatright, who had five turnovers to go with 11 points. They focused on Napier, who banged his shoulder in the first half and didn't score a basket in the second. This was a big game for the Huskies. They have no tournament. The regular season is all they have.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't concerned about their motives," Pitino said. "I was concerned about our motives. I'll be long dead, but Kevin Ollie is going to be an unbelievable coach. The reason I love Kevin so much, is not only have I known him, but I have found the guys like Scott Brooks and the guys who have played professional basketball, who did it through hunger and pain and work and travel overseas and play on 13 one-year contracts, they make the best coaches, because they have to fight every year of their life to make it.
"The fact he played professional basketball, he knows everything about the game and how to help guys to get there. There couldn't have been a more perfect guy. That AD [Warde Manuel] was very smart, 'let's see if the guy can coach, let's not take anybody's word.' But they got themselves one of the best young coaches who has a resume built for coaching."
And some nights that resume includes losing to a better team and a suffocating defense.
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