MIAMI (AP) — FIU weathered the first punch, then a second, and found itself only down by five points late in the first half against the defending national champions.
And then a three-minute stretch pretty much stomped out any illusions the Panthers might have had about knocking off No. 6 Louisville.
Tymell Murphy scored 16 points, but his FIU teammates shot a combined 12 for 46 from the floor and wound up falling to the Cardinals 85-56 on Saturday night. Rakeem Buckles scored 13 and Jerome Frink added 10 for the Panthers (8-5).
“We didn’t run offense and did a bad job of shot selection and forced a lot of shots,” Buckles said. “That was the key. I don’t think it was them. I think offensively we did some bad things.”
And he would know better than anyone how doing that against Louisville is typically fatal to opponents. Buckles started his college career with the Cardinals, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino still speaks extremely highly of him.
Pitino has an affinity for FIU as well, given that Panthers director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia hired his son Richard Pitino to be his basketball coach — and then didn’t make a fuss when Minnesota wooed him away last spring.
Still, that didn’t mean Louisville was going to take it easy on the Panthers.
“We didn’t play great basketball tonight, but we played good offense,” Rick Pitino said. “We were a little inept at times on defense, but offensively we did a good job in sharing the basketball and making sure that we did the right things to attack their changing defenses.”
Russ Smith scored 18 points, Wayne Blackshear added 13 and Louisville won its sixth straight. The Cardinals never trailed and were rarely threatened, outside a couple of brief early stretches.
Smith had 12 in the first half for the Cardinals (11-1).
“Played against a very good basketball team,” FIU coach Anthony Evans said. “Thought we went out there and played good in spurts. I think their depth wore us down a little bit and they finished the game.”
Rick Pitino decided to honor the contract and play FIU, offering to do so in Miami even after his son left the Panthers to take over at Minnesota after last season. When Richard Pitino left FIU, Louisville had the option of canceling the series.
“But they wanted to give us the game and we’re very appreciative,” Garcia said.
There were plenty of potential pratfalls that could have grabbed at Louisville in this one.
First, it absolutely was the biggest game of FIU’s season, considering the Panthers are ineligible for any postseason appearance because of academic sanctions.
The Cardinals had to avoid slipping into vacation mode, which likely wasn’t easy since they checked into an upscale Miami Beach resort on Wednesday and aren’t leaving until Monday.
Christmas is looming and when Louisville gets past that, the rivalry game against Kentucky awaits on Dec. 28.
But this is the way the Cardinals wanted it. Part of the reason they’re in Miami, where Rick Pitino has lived part-time for nearly 20 years, is that they wanted an escape from the Kentucky showdown buzz. So there was no looking ahead, not to the holiday and not to Kentucky, either.
From the outset, Louisville was all business.
“We were in total lockdown,” Rick Pitino said.
Louisville opened the game on a 10-3 run, setting a tone where the Cardinals would only have to flex their muscle in short spurts to assert control. FIU scored the next six points, but the next Louisville run restored order in a hurry.
Montrezl Harrell, who finished with 10 points, had an alley-oop that left the basket shaking for a full 15 seconds afterward, a play that started a 12-0 run by the Cardinals and turned a 10-9 edge into a 22-9 gap.
FIU settled down and back-to-back 3-pointers by Buckles and Dennis Mavin got the Panthers within 30-25 late in the half. But the Cardinals had one last first-half flurry in them, ripping off the last nine points and capping that spurt with another alley-oop dunk by Harrell with just over a second remaining.
That sent Louisville into the locker room with a 39-25 lead, and there was no doubt from there.
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