LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Though Louisville's roster differs from the one that won the national championship in April, coach Rick Pitino has stressed that veterans such as Luke Hancock and Russ Smith must take charge if the Cardinals hope to make another title run.
Sunday offered a hint of how good things could be when the seniors' games are clicking.
Hancock scored 19 of his career-high 23 points in the second half, including two free throws with 46 seconds remaining, to help No. 12 Louisville hold off SMU for a 71-63 victory in a meeting of Hall of Fame coaches.
Smith also had 23 points as the Cardinals (14-3, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) bounced back from Thursday's loss to No. 24 Memphis.
"We were a little down after the Memphis game because we gave it away," Pitino said. "We were down last year after we lost three (in a row).
"I told them to stop trying to live up to last year's team. You're not that team, just be yourself. Be yourself and say you're going to be the best team we can be and be the best team we can be. Then in March, let's see how we are ...
"That's not a knock on our abilities. We are just a different basketball team."
Hancock is a different player, posting his second straight 20-point game to help Pitino's Cardinals get the final word in his first collegiate matchup against Larry Brown and his Mustangs (11-4, 1-2).
Finally healthy after spending the early part of the season dealing with a left Achilles injury, the senior guard made 8 of 15 from the field — 4 of 9 from 3-point range — in his first start of the season to help keep Louisville ahead in a tense game that Montrezl Harrell finally settled with a dunk and a block after Hancock's free throws.
"I'm starting to feel better on the court, getting in a rhythm," Hancock said. "It takes a lot to get into the flow of the game, to get your looks and find teammates and get them the ball."
Not bad considering the Final Four MOP was on the bench early in the game having his fingers on his right hand taped after jamming them. Hancock showed no signs of discomfort as he calmly stepped behind the line and drained all of his 3-pointers in the second half, showing the form that helped Louisville win its third title.
"I'm getting old, but I kind of thought he was the MVP in the NCAA tournament just doing that," Brown said.
Smith meanwhile was 3 of 5 from long range and 7 of 16 overall and had seven assists. Harrell added 12 points and 13 rebounds as Louisville shot 47 percent (25 of 53) to offset being outrebounded 48-35 including 20-6 on the offensive end.
It was the best an opponent has shot against the league's top field goal defense (36 percent) this season and Brown praised both players for making it happen — especially Smith for involving Hancock and others while creating his own offense.
"They do a great job of finding him when he's open. He's not afraid of the big stage," Brown said of Hancock.
As for Smith, he added, "I look at that little kid and he's trying to make everybody on his team better. He recognized Luke was open and I think that was a key."
Markus Kennedy had 12 points and eight rebounds in his first start of the season for SMU while Shawn Williams added 10 points. Although the Mustangs controlled the boards, they managed to hit just 24 of 65 from the field (a season-low 37 percent), well below their league-best 50 percent mark coming in.
SMU made just 13 of 25 free throws and were only 2 of 11 from beyond the arc.
Hancock, Smith and Terry Rozier combined for nine of Louisville's 10 3-pointers on 23 attempts. The Cardinals' 3-point accuracy was especially critical in a game in which SMU controlled the inside 34-28, points off turnovers (16-13), second-chance points (18-3) and bench scoring (24-8).
It looked like Louisville would run away from SMU after going up 17 and leading 37-25 at halftime. But the Mustangs adjusted to make it close throughout the second half and get within 67-63 with 49 seconds left before Hancock's free throws provided a six-point lead.
"I think the guys really locked in," Smith said. "There was more of an effort, more of a drive to really finish this one out."