By Sam Draut
Louisville defeated UConn 71-61 to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship in at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. Saturday.
Montrezl Harrell led the Cardinals with 22 points and 11 rebounds. The sophomore forward’s eleventh double-double of the season was also his third against Connecticut, 26-8.
Senior guard Russ Smith, who had a career-high 42 points the previous night against Houston, scored 19 points and added five steals and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Both teams battled back and forth through the first half, but after leading 27-21, Louisville (29-5) closed the final three minutes of the first half on a 10-2 run to take a 37-23 lead into halftime.
Smith and Harrell each had 10 points to pace the Cardinals in the first half.
“These two guys were spectacular, Montrezl is similar to Gorgui, he came in a very good athlete and he will leave us someday as a very good basketball because his passing and shooting skills have improved and he may be the smartest player on the team in terms of a scouting report. Certainly no words to describe Russ Smith, he just is having a spectacular senior year,” Rick Pitino said.
In the second half, Louisville extended their lead to 20 points, their largest of the game, with 14:23 left. Connecticut cut the deficit, but could not bring the game within single digits in the final minutes.
American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, Shabazz Napier, was held to four of 12 shooting, finishing with 16 points and four rebounds.
Napier’s backcourt mate Ryan Boatwright struggled, shooting three of 10 from the field and scoring seven points, five below his season average of 12 points per game.
Junior guard Chris Jones finished with 11 points and four rebounds. Senior center Stephan Van Treese pulled down eight rebounds and scored four points.
Louisville has won five games in a row, and 12 out of their last 13.
Louisville tore through Rutgers and Houston in the first two rounds of the AAC Tourney. Beating Houston by 29 and Rutgers by 61.
Over the three-game stretch the Cardinals had 39 steals and forced 64 turnovers.
“We take it one game at a time and we buy into Coach’s game plan. We try to focus on the defensive end because we know if we get a defensive start that’s going to lead to our offensive break,” Harrell said. “Look at our scouting report, pay attention to every little thing to win the game.”
The win marked Louisville’s third consecutive conference championship and Pitino adamantly stated after the game he believes his team deserves a number one seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“I judge it from the eye test,” Pitino said. “I’m impressed with our guys and what they have done to win a regular season, the conference tournament, the way we have done it in the fashion we have done it fits the eye test.”