New league, same champion. The Louisville Cardinals won their third-straight league title with a win over Connecticut Saturday night in Memphis.
In a battle of the last three Big East champions, the No. 5 Cardinals (2012 and 2013) and No. 21 Huskies (2011) squared off for a new title in a new league - the American Athletic Conference.
Louisville took control early, but the game was well within striking distance until the end of the first half. After a 10-2 run just before halftime, Louisville maintained a double-digit lead throughout the second half. The Cardinals maintained their high level of play from the previous two rounds when they dispatched Rutgers and Houston in spectacular fashion.
Leading by as many as 22 points, Louisville closed out a 71-61 win with the help of 22 points and 11 rebounds from Montrezl Harrell, 19 points from Russ Smith and 11 points from Chris Jones. DeAndre Daniels had 17 and American MVP Shabazz Napier had 16 for the Huskies, who fell to the Cardinals for the third straight game.
GREAT END OF HALF
After a dunk UConn's Amida Brimah, Louisville led 27-21 with 3:28 left before halftime. Then the Cardinals went on one of their trademark booms, scoring 10 of the next 12 points before the halftime buzzer.
It started with a tip-in by Harrell at the 3:10 mark. A three by Terry Rozier put Louisville up 32-21 with 2:00 left. After a jumper by UConn's Ryan Boatright cut Louisville's lead to nine, the Cardinals closed the half on a 5-0 run consisting of a three by Luke Hancock and a layup by Rozier with two seconds left after a timely steal by Russ Smith.
The old Big East conference was known to be very physical. The AAC title game Saturday night was every bit as physical as the old Big East. Only eight total fouls were called through the first 14:39 minutes of game clock.
RUSS SMITH WATCH
After scoring 42 points on 14 of 22 shooting against Houston, Russ Smith was a focus of UConn's defense. The Huskies clearly didn't want him going off. Still, Smith had 10 of Louisville's first 24 points, and finished with 19 points.
Smith was named American Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player after the game. He and Harrell were also named to the league's All-Tournament team.