LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Shaky at the start, No. 3 Louisville outscored College of Charleston 22-3 over the final 6:41 on Saturday to pull away to a 70-48 victory in the first game of its national championship defense.
Preseason All-America Russ Smith led Louisville with 21 points and five assists. His new backcourtmate Chris Jones, last season's junior college player of the year, added 12 points and five assists.
Charleston trailed 48-45 after freshman Canyon Barry's hit a 17-footer with 6:55 to play. Then Smith asserted himself, hitting two free throws and driving to find forwards Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear for easy baskets that gave the Cardinals a 54-45 lead with 5:05 left. Charleston scored again with 2:42 remaining, making it 61-47 and ending a 13-0 Louisville run.
Barry led Charleston with 10 points while Adjehi Baru added eight points and nine rebounds.
Louisville raised its third national championship banner to the rafters before the game.
Kevin Ware, whose poise last season after his gruesome compound leg fracture turned him into Louisville's rallying point and the NCAA tournament's most memorable figure, did not play. He saw his first game action since the injury on Wednesday, 220 days after injuring his leg against Duke in the Midwest Regional final. He played 10 second-half minutes in an exhibition win against Pikeville, draining his first shot, a 3-pointer.
Louisville was also without Luke Hancock, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player who scored 22 points and hit all five of his 3-pointers in the title game. He is out with an Achilles tendon injury. Forward Chane Behanan returned to practice on Friday for the first time in nearly a month but remains suspended.
Opening game jitters were evident early as the Cardinals hit just 4 of their first 17 shots before Harrell skied to slam down an alley-oop pass from Jones, giving Louisville a 15-13 lead midway through the first half. The Cardinals were outshot and outrebounded in the first half but led 29-27 at the break after Smith hit a floating jumper with 45 seconds left.
Tied at 29 with 19:13 left, Barry missed two free throws — shot underhanded like his Hall of Fame father Rick — that would have put the Cougars ahead before a 9-0 Louisville run made it 38-29 with 15:30 to play.(backslash)
Charleston kept it close — in contrast to last season's 80-38 scalding — until Louisville unleashed one of its pressure-fueled spurts late in the half, so evident during last season's national championship run.
Louisville shot just 38 percent from the field (26 of 68). Blackshear, who led the Cardinals with 18 points in last season's matchup, missed his first 11 shots before hitting a jumper from the right baseline with 9:04 left. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting and six rebounds.
Jones and big men Stephan Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang began Louisville's attempt to replace the production from last season's leaders now in the NBA — point guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng. Van Treese had six points and seven rebounds, all in the second half, after picking up two fouls in the first 3:10. Mathiang had seven points and 10 rebounds in his collegiate debut.