HARTFORD, Conn. -- Louisville waited 20 minutes to prove the Cardinals deserved the No. 1 ranking.
It took the same amount of time for their guards to show they could be the best backcourt in the country even when they don’t spend all that much time together on the court.
Russ Smith had 23 points and Peyton Siva managed 11 in a foul-plagued 22 minutes and the Cardinals, playing just hours after they moved to the top of the poll, beat Connecticut 73-58 on Monday night.
The Cardinals (16-1, 4-0 Big East) won their 11th straight game and like the others they relied on their star backcourt and pressure defense.
Siva, the conference preseason Player of the Year, picked up his second foul just 3:47 into the game. Not only did the Cardinals lose a veteran leader when the senior went out but Smith, the leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, had to assume more of a role in running the offense. It didn’t hurt his scoring much, though, as he had 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting as Connecticut took a 34-28 halftime lead.
Siva picked up his third foul with 14:21 to play in the game and he returned to the bench. When he came back in the game with 10 minutes left, Smith went to the bench for treatment. Siva hit a 3-pointer 50 seconds later as part of the game-changing 19-5 run.
"We did a good job of weathering a Peyton Siva storm, with him out," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Once he came back and we weathered that storm, we were able to play much better defense and much better offense.
That is an understatement.
The pressure defense that drops into a matchup zone forced Connecticut into turnover after turnover and when the Huskies did get to shoot it was almost always a miss.
"They deserve the No. 1 ranking," Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. "They have talent. They play together. They play hard. Whoever’s open they get the ball to. And they have those two amazing guards. Siva and Russ put pressure on our offense and defense the whole night."
Connecticut, which shot 53.8 percent from the field in the first half, had just three field goals in the opening 13 minutes of the second half as Louisville went ahead 60-44. The Huskies, who went 9 minutes without a field goal at one stretch, had trouble moving the ball against the fullcourt pressure and 2-3 zone of the Cardinals. The Huskies had seven turnovers in the first 11 minutes of the second half, matching their total in the first half.
Louisville shot 60.7 percent in the second half (17 of 28) and hit an even 50 percent for the game.
Connecticut scored the first basket of the second half for a 36-28 lead but that’s when Louisville started looking like the No. 1 team in the country.
They went on an 8-0 run in which Smith had four points and Siva two. That was part of a 19-5 burst that gave Louisville a 47-41 lead with 12:18 to play.
The only other time Louisville was ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press’ Top 25 was the final poll of 2008-09. The Cardinals won the national championship in 1980 and 1986 but the AP does not conduct a post-NCAA tournament poll.
The Cardinals are the third team to hold the No. 1 spot this season along with Indiana and Duke and they celebrated the move with the convincing road win.
Pitino talked to his team about the ranking.
"You’re going to play for it at the end, which is the most important thing, but hold onto it for a while," he told them. "Louisville in its great tradition, one of the top seven traditions in all of basketball, has never been No. 1, I was blown away by that."
He was off by one.
Siva said he doesn’t like being No. 1.
"I don’t really like it, because it puts a big bull’s eye on your back.," he said. "But my team embraces it. They play with that chip on their shoulder like they should be No. 1 and in the second half we proved it."
Omar Calhoun led the Huskies (12-4, 2-2) with 20 points while Shabazz Napier added 12, all but two in the first half. Ryan Boatright had 11 points and he and Napier both had six assists for the Huskies, who were coming off a win over then-No. 17 Notre Dame that was their sixth in seven games.
Calhoun gave his opinion of Louisville being No. 1.
"You ain’t going to play a team better than that," he said.
Connecticut drops to 2-7 all-time against No. 1 teams with the last win over Texas on Jan. 23, 2010.