LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Preston Knowles was so intent on listening to Louisville coach Rick Pitino he didn’t even notice the ball being inbounded at the other end of the court and didn’t see teammate Terrence Williams streaking toward the basket until Williams was already past halfcourt.
No biggie, not for Louisville’s spark plug.
Knowles scrambled in from the wing and converted Williams’ perfect bounce pass into a layup to help put the finishing touches on the ninth-ranked Cardinals’ 94-75 win over Austin Peay on Saturday.
“I was just trying to listen to Coach, he kept telling me to take it to the hole,” Knowles said after scoring a career-high 21 points in 21 energetic minutes off the bench. “I saw the ball coming and I just tried to get in the play.”
Knowles made plenty of them during a dizzying outburst by the Cardinals. Samardo Samuels added 21 points and 12 rebounds and Williams had 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds for the Cardinals (6-1), who used a 17-2 burst midway through the second half to take control.
“With well-coached teams you don’t get your run but once a game,” Pitino said. “We got it one time, and we knew that’s how it would play out. They are not only a very good basketball team, but a smart basketball team.”
The Governors (5-3), picked to finish third in the Ohio Valley Conference this season, certainly played like one for the game’s first 30 minutes.
Wes Channels led Austin Peay with 23 points and Drake Reed added 18 points and five rebounds but the Governors came undone midway through the second half. Caleb Brown’s 3-pointer put Austin Peay up 59-54 with 13 minutes to play, but Louisville responded with the kind of offensive avalanche that has made the Cardinals a trendy Final Four pick.
“When Louisville got started to stretch the lead there, we had to start pressing and I thought we got really tired,” Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said. “We don’t play that many guys so we really wore down.”
Knowles knocked down three 3-pointers and added a runner and a free throw as the Cardinals rallied. He capped the run with a jumper from the wing that gave Louisville an 81-65 lead with 5 minutes remaining. The sophomore guard finished 8-of-11 from the field, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers.
“It makes me more confident and our team better,” Knowles said. “It makes my defense better and it adds another element. The good thing about our team is, even if we’re down, it just takes a little spark.”
It’s a spark Knowles is making a habit of providing. Recruited because of his quick hands, the sophomore guard—who had three steals against the Governors—is becoming a weapon at the other end of the floor now too.
“Preston gives you such tremendous defense, it’s a bonus with his offense,” Pitino said. “Preston’s big key is to take open shots.”
Knowles got plenty of them during Louisville’s run. His shooting forced Austin Peay to extend its defense, opening things up for Samuels.
The freshman missed four of his first five shots during a miserable first half but made up for it with a handful of dunks in the second half, including a thunderous jam with less than a minute left, allowing the Cardinals to exhale.
“Down the stretch Austin Peay seemed to get tired and we started picking it up on defense,” Samuels said.
Louisville had rolled to five straight easy wins at Freedom Hall to open the season, winning by an average of 34 points. The Governors, however, were hardly intimidated.
Louisville had been holding opponents to 34 percent shooting, but Austin Peay wasn’t exactly bothered by Louisville’s full court press. Austin Peay shot 48 percent from the field but lost its composure during Louisville’s run. The Governors turned the ball over 18 times and went cold as soon as the Cardinals got hot.
For long stretches, however, the Cardinals and Freedom Hall held their breath as the Governors gave Louisville the kind of test Pitino was hoping for as his team begins a difficult final stretch before Big East play begins. Louisville plays neutral-site games against Mississippi and Minnesota next week.
“This team is really good preparation for us for what’s coming up,” Pitino said. “It’s going to be a challenge. We’ll work on a number of things.”
Namely, stopping opponents from getting to the basket. Austin Peay outscored the Cardinals 34-32 in the paint as Reed kept finding ways to get his unorthodox shot off.
The two-time All-OVC player seemed to befuddle the Cardinals with his funky delivery. Raising his right arm straight above his head, Reed’s shot was almost impossible to block despite the best efforts of whichever Cardinal happened to be nearby.
Reed even knocked down his second 3-pointer of the season and the 10th of his career during the first half as the Governors managed to keep the lethargic Cardinals close, trailing 41-39 at halftime.