Louisville has been consistently the best defensive team in the country, and they showed how they can control a game in many different ways tonight against St. John's, playing without coach Steve Lavin (death of his father) and Jamal Branch (MCL injury).
Behind active hands, shifting pressure defenses, and just enough scoring to send the Valentine's Day crowd home into the Kentucky night with a smile, the Cardinals defeated St. John's, 72-58, at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
Next for the Red Storm, who fall to 15-10, 7-6 in the Big East, is a Carnesecca Arena affair on Wednesday evening against last-place South Florida. Louisville improves to 20-5, 8-4 in the league, and has South Florida three days earlier, on Sunday in Tampa.
At times in both the first and second halves, it looked like St. John's had righted the attack. What had been a Cardinal mosh pit at their offensive rim turned into a chaos more Red Storm-like once Chris Obekpa was inserted into the game. The length of the Johnnies slowed the Cardinals down with strong defense at the rim in transition, and better perimeter defense cut down the Peyton Siva drives that had carved them like a soft chocolate candy heart.
But turnovers and missed shots gave opportunities. A 1-point lead for Louisville turned into a 9-point bulge at the end of the half as the Johnnies missed quick shots, punctuated by a last-second Peyton Siva layup at the end of the first half buzzer.
In the second half, a cold Russ Smith was activated, powering a basketball death of 1,000 youth mistakes from the Johnnies.
Smith scored his first points from the field with a transition three-pointer with 14:25 left in the second half, a wide-open shot that spurred a Rico Hines timeout. The Smith shot increased the lead to four, and the Cardinals didn't let up. Smith continued to score (21 of his game-high 24 points in the second half), and Louisville ran away with the game, forcing the Red Storm into bad passes, errant shots, and frustration.
The Red Storm, generally a solid team at protecting the ball and getting the opportunity to shoot, turned the ball over 14 times (20% of possessions), on strips in the paint and bad passes, and did not handle the Louisville pressures well. When the trapping zone didn't work, Rick Pitino switched his team to a man press that sped the Red Storm up into rough, inefficient nights for JaKarr Sampson (4/15, 8 points, 9 rebounds) and D`Angelo Harrison (6/19, 18 points, 3 assists, 5 fouls).
Chris Obekpa had 12 rebounds, 2 offensive.
Along with Russ Smith's team-leading 24, Peyton Siva - who carved his way through the Red Storm defense early and generated shots at the rim - had 12 points and 6 assists. Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan both scored 10 points. Behanan, who had a slight shoulder injury midway through the game after contact with Amir Garrett, had 17 rebounds, 4 offensive - all in the first half.
Louisville had 15 offensive rebounds (35% of their possible total).
The Cardinals were led to 40% shooting inside the arc, but scored 20 points at the rim in the first half.
Louisville shot 19% of their shots from beyond the arc (12 attempts), a sign that they found their way to good shots in the paint with ease against a Red Storm defense designed to keep opponents on the perimeter.
Greene's 21 points is his second-highest output this season, to his 24 against Baylor in the Charleston Classic.
Beacon of Light Award
D`Angelo Harrison, mired in a slump, came out under control and creative, scoring enough to carry a team that often looked sloppy or hesitant against the flying Louisville press. If his scoring has returned, the Red Storm are a far more dangerous team.
Manny Pacquiao Award