LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville's final home game for nearly a month was especially memorable because of its precision in a lopsided victory against Missouri State.
Certainly, the sixth-ranked Cardinals have room to improve in many areas as they prepare for four road contests over 23 days including a Dec. 28 showdown against in-state rival No. 19 Kentucky in Lexington. For now, the defending national champions look forward to building on its best overall performance of the season.
Montrezl Harrell had 17 points and eight rebounds, and Louisville manhandled the Bears 90-60 on Tuesday night.
The Cardinals (10-1) took control early and never let up against the Bears (8-2). They combined dominant rebounding and offensive accuracy during a 16-0 first-half run for a 19-4 lead in the first meeting between the schools since 2006.
Harrell was among four Cardinals with at least eight rebounds each, a combination that alone outdid MSU in Louisville's 51-30 domination of the boards including 20-10 offensively. They also outscored the Bears 46-28 inside and held them to 38 percent shooting to close a 5-0 home stand.
Asked if this was Louisville's best effort to date, Harrell answered, "I'd say so. It was a great win. The first half we really got into it, (and it) got us going."
Senior guard Russ Smith added 11 points and eight assists, while freshman Terry Rozier had 11 points and eight rebounds. Forwards Stephan Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang combined for 17 rebounds for Louisville, which shot 34 of 66 from the field (52 percent).
Louisville coach Rick Pitino agreed that it was the best he has seen his team play, adding, "I don't know what was better, the defense, the offense or the offensive rebounding. It was just awesome in the first half."
Jarmar Gulley's 14 points led the Bears, whose two-game winning streak was thoroughly halted by a Cardinals squad that controlled every facet of the game.
MSU led Louisville 4-3 before the Cardinals seized the pace with the big run. The Bears never got closer than 17 after that, spoiling Paul Lusk's 100th career game as a coach.
"They just dominated us on the glass," Lusk said. "They've got a lot of talent but they also play so darn hard. We just simply couldn't keep them off the glass. That was the telltale of the game."
Missouri State brought some impressive credentials into its second meeting against Louisville and first since losing to the Cardinals in the 2006 NIT. The Bears were runners-up to Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge, a four-game run that included a win over previously unbeaten Texas A&M.
They also boasted an impressive scoring combination in Gulley and Marcus Marshall, who had combined for nearly 27 points per game coming in and were developing into a strong scoring duo in just four games together. Against the Cardinals, though, they combined for only 22 points as Marshall finished with eight.
MSU's bench was outscored 32-26, 10 points below their average.
Louisville welcomed back point guard Chris Jones from a one-game absence because of a sprained right wrist. Rozier started but the 5-foot-10 junior came in five minutes later with the wrist bandaged and finished with nine points in 19 minutes.
The Cardinals were in the midst of their key run when Jones entered. The sequence was highlighted by Chane Behanan's thunderous one-handed dunk off of Van Treese's long lead pass and Rozier's steal of the inbounds pass and layup seconds later. Louisville continued to overwhelm MSU, which was outrebounded 20-5 through 13 minutes and 27-10 overall in the first half.
That statistic offered the best indicator of Louisville's defensive effort, which disrupted the Bears' dribbling, passing and shot selection. The Cardinals nearly matched their per-game blocks average (4.6) by the break alone, finishing with seven and answering everything MSU attempted.
"They switched defenses a lot," said MSU guard/forward Keith Pickens, who had four points. "It was sometimes hard to read. I think it came down to rebounding early. They killed us on the offensive glass."
Louisville's offense was just as effective, as the Cardinals dissected MSU's zone and muscled their way for baskets. Louisville also had 14 assists and recorded seven blocks.
"If we play defense like that, we can beat any team in the country," Rozier said.