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Chris Elsberry: Louisville very worthy of No. 1 ranking

Updated 12:28 am, Tuesday, January 15, 2013
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HARTFORD -- When the plane touched down on the runway at Bradley International a little after 2 Monday afternoon and the social media surge could begin again in earnest, it didn't take very long for the Louisville players to discover that they had just made a little history.

Never before had the Cardinals been atop the college basketball rankings during the regular season. As the players powered up their cell phones, waiting for their luggage, the texts and tweets started ringing with messages of congratulation about being ranked No. 1. Coach Rick Pitino had a little message of his own for his players.

Let's keep it for a while.

"I told them, `Look, you've played a very difficult schedule, Missouri, Duke, at Memphis, at Charleston, Kentucky, so you're very deserving of that (ranking),'" Pitino said. "So why don't you hold onto it." After watching the No. 1 Cardinals dismantle UConn in the second half en route to a 73-58 victory at the XL Center Monday night, it looks as if Louisville has grabbed that ranking with both fists and might never let it go. Not only do the Cardinals have depth, they have tons of athleticism. They also have strength and skill and leadership, especially at the two biggest positions on the floor, point guard and shooting guard, and they have played in enough big games to know that whenever they need to, they've got an extra gear that only national championship winning teams seems to have.

And, barring injury, if the Cardinals continue this kind of overall play, they could very well be hoisting up the NCAA trophy in Atlanta in April.

"The great thing about our team is the most sky high of any game we've played this year when we played Charleston on the road," Pitino said. "Kentucky was just another game to us. Connecticut was just another game where we played with a lot of emotion. We don't get up for frontcourts or backcourts. We just try to play hard every night. And if you do that, and you have good talent, you're going to win most games."

Early on, however, it looked as if the No. 1 ranking might be lost just as quickly as it was awarded. Peyton Siva found himself on the bench with two quick fouls -- earning himself one expletive-laced tirade from Pitino -- the Huskies rode the wave of some early momentum, thanks to 10 first-half points from Shabazz Napier, and took a six-point lead into the locker room at halftime.

Louisville was still well within striking distance thanks to Siva's backcourt mate, Russ Smith, who had 15 of the Cardinals' 28 points (making both Ryan Boatright and Napier look lost at times as he blew by them for easy drives to the basket) and helping to "weather the storm" as Pitino put it, until Siva could return for the second half.

"I just had to keep the game within reach and not let it get out of control on the road because UConn's very talented," said Smith, who finished with 23. "So I just tried to keep it close until our leader came back and we were able to make a good run."

Good? Try suffocating. With Siva scoring nine points, Smith eight and forward Chane Behanan getting 14 of his 16 points in the second half, the Cardinals outscored UConn 45-24 over the final 20 minutes to win going away. And as great as their offense was -- Louisville shot 60.7 percent in the second half -- their defense was even better. The Huskies managed just seven field goals and shot 25.9 percent in the second half.

"I don't know what Pitino said to them," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "But he must have said something."

First, Siva apologized to his team for sitting on the bench for 16 minutes. Then Pitino said this: Don't let Napier and Boatright beat us.

"Our goal was to limit them to one shot and not let Napier and Boatright get good looks," Pitino said. "We found that in the last 10 minutes of play, 82 percent of their shots come from Napier and Boatright, so we wanted to make sure that they didn't beat us."

They didn't. Not even close.

"They played very, very hard in the second half," Ollie said. "They took it to us."

The Cardinals have now won 11 straight since a late November loss to Duke at the Battle for Atlantis. And have climbed to the top of the college basketball mountain.

And now that they're there, Louisville wants to stay in that rarified air as long as possible.

"I don't really like the No. 1 one ranking because it puts a bull's-eye on your back," Siva said. "My teammates? They love it. They love the ranking. They always play with that chip on their shoulder. We just have to continue to play this hard."

celsberry@ctpost.com http://Twitter@elsctpost