Louisville became the first-ever winner of the American Athletic Conference tournament, thanks to a 71-61 win over Connecticut in the final on Saturday, March 15.
Montrezl Harrell had a huge performance for the Cardinals, totaling 22 points and 11 rebounds in the win. Russ Smith had 19 points and five steals as well. ESPN noted how dominant they have been recently:
The Cardinals only trailed for a total of 27 seconds in the entire AAC tournament, according to ESPN's broadcast.
DeAndre Daniels had an impressive effort for the Huskies, with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but leading scorer Shabazz Napier was limited to 16, going 4-of-12 form the field.
Louisville showcased its smothering defense throughout the AAC tournament, and that continued in the finals against UConn. The Cardinals steadily built up a 37-23 lead at the half and had no problem extending that to over 20 after intermission.
The Huskies cut the deficit to 13 in the final few minutes to make the game competitive. Unfortunately, they were unable to get the score any closer until the closing seconds, making the 10-point lead seem closer than it actually was.
Both teams are solidly in the NCAA tournament, but this matchup will go a long way toward deciding a seed. The Cardinals have a chance to earn a No. 1 seed after moving to 29-5 on the year, although they may lack quality wins in the eyes of the selection committee.
After the win, head coach Rick Pitino weighed in with his thoughts:
“We’ll probably be a No.1 seed.” – Rick Pitino— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) March 16, 2014
Brad Evans of Yahoo points out that this seed is unlikely, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing:
Louisville fans should stop clamoring for a No. 1. The chip on Cards' shoulder as No. 3 would only motivate an already sick team more.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) March 15, 2014
Of course, Andy Katz of ESPN argues that this is just a bad thing for their next opponents:
What No. 1 seed will be penalized by committee and get Louisville in the same bracket? Playing as well if not better than any other team.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) March 15, 2014
Connecticut will likely get a middling seed as the squad will try to make a run to at least the Sweet 16. With big-time wins over Florida, Cincinnati and others this season, the squad can truly beat anyone in the tournament if it plays to its ability.
Russ Smith, Louisville: B+
After scoring 42 points in the semifinals, anything less might have been considered a disappointment to some. Despite not reaching the same scoring heights, he still had a strong day on both ends of the court, finishing with 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting, as well as five steals and three assists.
This continued a dominant overall performance to earn him top honors for the tournament:
Smith was not incredibly efficient in the last win, but this has been less of a problem this season as he has matured as a player. Going into the NCAA tournament, Louisville can trust him to be a true leader who can make the big shots when needed.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: A+
Louisville won the national championship last season without much of a low-post presence. With the way Harrell has been playing lately—doubling his production from a year ago—it could make the Cardinals even tougher to beat.
The sophomore totaled 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in the win. Jon Hancock of KentuckySports.co likes what he is seeing from the young forward:
I really feel like Harrell is becoming one of the best all-around power forward I have seen for awhile. His hook and ability to block #Beast— Jon Hancock (@JonKYSportsco) March 15, 2014
If this keeps up, Louisville could be unstoppable.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: B-
Napier has done it all for UConn this season, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Unfortunately, he was unable to do much against Louisville, scoring only 16, with much of it coming in garbage time.
He made only four of his 12 attempts in the loss.
The senior has a lot of weight on his shoulders heading into the NCAA tournament, with many fans hoping for a Kemba Walker-esque run to a championship. However, this game shows that he still is capable of a poor performance.
If this happens at any point in the NCAA tournament, it is hard to imagine the Huskies having enough to overcome it offensively.
Amida Brimah, Connecticut: B+
While he is still not lighting up the scoreboard, Amida Brimah showcased his potential in this loss with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, as well as a couple of big dunks.
The athletic freshman entered the day averaging just four points and three rebounds per game, but he played some big minutes against a solid frontcourt. Although he still struggled defensively, few people have been able to defend Harrell recently.
With this effort, Connecticut has plenty to look forward to over the next few years.
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