Louisville opens title defense with win
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)
The emotion of raising a national championship banner combined with replacing two key players from the team that won the title had No. 3 Louisville in a close game for 33 minutes against the College of Charleston on Saturday.
Then came the boom.
The Cardinals outscored Charleston 22-3 over the final 6:41 to pull away to a 70-48 victory in the first game of its national championship defense.
''Our quality, that `boom' quality that we had last year came out again in the second half because we played like starving dogs,'' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw it when Louisville shook off the grief of losing teammate Kevin Ware to a broken leg and ripped off a 13-2 second-half run that pushed the Cardinals to the Final Four.
''We had a chance there, and then, boom,'' Krzyzewski said after the Midwest Regional final. ''That's what they do to teams.''
Louisville pulled off similar comebacks against Wichita State and Michigan to earn the school's third national title in April. They unveiled the championship banner for those efforts before Saturday's game but were shaky at the start following the ceremony that Pitino wrapped up.
''We are very much like the Green Bay Packers. We are owned by our fans,'' he said, choked up in the moment.
Preseason All-America Russ Smith led Louisville with 21 points and five assists. He said while the pregame pageantry was ''special'' it ''threw everything out of rhythm.''
''We just had to kind of kick the rust off,'' Smith said. ''I'm kind of happy we got back into playing the way we know how to play.''
That style — pressure basketball on defense and attacking the rim on offense — was on display as Louisville's spurt put the Cougars away late.
''It kind of just felt like last year when we kind of just boomed people,'' said Stephan Van Treese, a fifth-year senior. ''We just kept it going. It was awesome; the crowd really got into it.''
Van Treese had six points and seven rebounds, all in the second half, after picking up two fouls in the first 3:10. Freshman Mangok Mathiang added seven points and 10 rebounds in his collegiate debut.
They were the players trying to replace Gorgui Dieng, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, at center.
''That was great play and what we need from the 5 spot,'' Pitino said. ''We need hungry hustle and they gave it to us.''
Smith's new backcourtmate Chris Jones, last season's national junior college player of the year, charged with replacing four-year starter Peyton Siva, added 12 points and five assists.
Charleston trailed 48-45 after freshman Canyon Barry hit a 17-footer with 6:55 to play. Then Smith asserted himself, hitting two free throws and driving to find forwards Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear for easy baskets that gave the Cardinals a 54-45 lead with 5:05 left. Charleston scored again with 2:42 remaining, making it 61-47 and ending a 13-0 Louisville run.
''I'm just disappointed it didn't go to the wire,'' Charleston coach Doug Wojcik said. ''I really thought we were in it. We ran in at halftime down two; that's my disappointment.''
Barry led Charleston with 10 points while Adjehi Baru added eight points and nine rebounds.
Ware, whose poise last season after his gruesome compound leg fracture turned him into Louisville's rallying point and the NCAA tournament's most memorable figure, did not play. He saw his first game action since the injury on Wednesday, 220 days after injuring his leg against Duke. He played 10 second-half minutes in an exhibition win against Pikeville, draining his first shot, a 3-pointer.
Louisville was also without Luke Hancock, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player who scored 22 points and hit all five of his 3-pointers in the title game. He is out with an Achilles tendon injury. Forward Chane Behanan returned to practice on Friday for the first time in nearly a month but remains suspended.
Opening game jitters were evident early as the Cardinals hit just 4 of their first 17 shots before Harrell skied to slam down an alley-oop pass from Jones, giving Louisville a 15-13 lead midway through the first half. The Cardinals were outshot and outrebounded in the first half but led 29-27 at the break after Smith hit a floating jumper with 45 seconds left.
Tied at 29 with 19:13 left, Barry missed two free throws — shot underhanded like his Hall of Fame father Rick — that would have put the Cougars ahead before a 9-0 Louisville run made it 38-29 with 15:30 to play.
Charleston kept it close, in contrast to last season's 80-38 scalding, until Louisville unleashed its spurt.
Louisville shot just 38 percent from the field (26 of 68). Blackshear, who led the Cardinals with 18 points in last season's matchup, missed his first 11 shots before hitting a jumper from the right baseline with 9:04 left. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting and six rebounds.