LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville guard Preston Knowles flipped the ball over his head out of desperation. When it fell through the net as the halftime buzzer sounded to give the 11th-ranked Cardinals all the momentum they would need to crush Providence on Wednesday night, the senior guard just laughed.
``I've never even really tried anything like that,' Knowles said. ``If you ever even tried anything like that during practice, Coach (Rick) Pitino would probably throw you off the team.'
Knowles can rest easy. He's not going anywhere. And neither are the surprising Cardinals after Knowles had 20 points and 10 rebounds in his final home game to lead Louisville to an 87-60 victory over the listless Friars, who have lost seven straight.
The Cardinals (23-7, 12-5) clinched one of the top four seeds in next week's Big East tournament and a coveted double-bye into the quarterfinals. Heady territory for a team picked to finish eighth by the league's coaches in the preseason poll.
``We knew we were going to be better than everybody expected,' Knowles said. ``I took it to heart when people picked us eighth. I knew we'd be better than that. You could tell that way back in the summer.'
Kyle Kuric led the Cardinals with 25 points and Chris Smith added 12 as Louisville finished unbeaten at home in Big East play.
``This team restores your faith in coaching,' Pitino said.
Pitino divided the 18-game Big East schedule into six three-game segments figuring if the Cardinals could go 2-1 in at least half of the segments, they'd be competitive. The romp over the reeling Friars (14-16, 3-14) made Louisville a perfect 6-for-6 in that department.
``The most important thing was to win all six segments,' Pitino said. ``We never lost two in a row. We played a lot of exciting basketball. We wanted to re-brand and get a certain style.'
Vincent Council led the Friars (14-16, 3-14) with 20 points but the Cardinals held Providence star Marshon Brooks in check.
``This game we didn't want to let him breathe,' Pitino said of Brooks.
The Big East's leading scorer lit Louisville up for 27 points in an upset win on Jan. 22, but finished with 12 points - 13 below his average - on 3-of-12 shooting in the rematch.
``They were able to run and jump on (Brooks) every time he touched the basketball,' Friars coach Keno Davis said. ``We hit a wall against Louisville, but you give them credit.'
The only pulse seemed to come from Davis, who received a technical foul midway through the half while arguing with officials. It failed, however, to ignite his team.
Providence looked powerless to stop the Cardinals, who shot 47 percent. And when they missed, they had little trouble chasing down the rebound. Louisville outscored the Friars 27-11 in second-chance points.
Even Knowles got involved in the lane. His 10 rebounds were a career high. Chalk it up to another step in his evolution from defensive stopper as an underclassman to a fearless shooter and Louisville's unquestioned leader as a senior.
Pitino has credited Knowles' selflessness for his team's surprise play, and even though it was his night, Knowles seemed bent on getting his teammates involved.
He capped his home career with an alley-oop pass to Kuric, then promptly pumped his fist in celebration. When Pitino finally subbed him out with just over 2 minutes to play, he slapped the large Cardinal logo at center court and walked off to a rousing ovation.
``He basically runs everything, our offense and our defense, he picks guys up,' Kuric said of Knowles. ``He's always been a tough, tough player.'
By then the party was well under way, and there wasn't a cheerleader in sight, at least on the court anyway. Cheerleader Jordan Alcazar, who made headlines after inadvertently grabbing a live ball and throwing it up in the air in the final moments of an upset win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, was not in uniform on Wednesday.
The Cardinals certainly didn't need him to lead the cheers. That was saved for the Louisville bench, which rose to its feet whenever Knowles had the ball in his hands.
Providence appeared poised to spoil the Senior Night festivities early, with Council impersonating Michael Jordan's famous shoulder-shrug after hitting a short jumper to put the Friars up 16-9.
Pitino called a timeout and Knowles urged his teammates to wake up after an emotional pregame ceremony in which he and fellow senior George Goode were honored.
``I just told everybody it's time to get going,' Knowles said.
Knowles, as he's done most of the season, led the way. He tied it at 20 after getting loose for a dunk and the Cardinals took the lead for good on a putback by Kuric moments later.
Davis called a timeout, but the Friars promptly turned it over coming out of the break and Peyton Siva knocked down a 3-pointer. Louisville used its press to push the pace, and Providence struggled to keep up.
The capper came just before the halftime buzzer. Smith missed a layup with a second to go when Knowles, standing about 5 feet from the basket in the middle of the lane, grabbed the ball. He threw it over his head just before the horn. It swished through the net to give the Cardinals a 45-35 lead.
Providence was cooked. Brooks never got in rhythm and had little help outside of Council. The Friars shot 32 percent and appeared a step slow on a night Louisville capped a resurgent season with a flourish.
``I thought for about 30 minutes we did about all we could,' Davis said. ``I do not blame our guys for the last 10 minutes, but they ran out of gas.'
The Associated Press News Service
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