LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Louisville moved out of historic but aging Freedom Hall last March after 54 seasons in the iconic gym.
For a night anyway, the magic the Cardinals captured so often at their old place felt right at home in their new one.
Rakeem Buckles scored 17 points and Louisville christened the sparkling KFC Yum! Center with an 88-73 upset of No. 16 Butler on Tuesday night.
"This is a starting point for us," coach Rick Pitino said.
It certainly looked like it.
Terrence Jennings added 13 points and eight rebounds while Elijah Justice and Preston Knowles had 12 points each as the Cardinals withstood a late surge by the Bulldogs.
"Everybody was underrating us and we went out there and proved we can play with anybody," Jennings said. "We're not content right now. We're still focused on getting better, studying our opponents, listening to coach and we just showed the potential in our team."
Shelvin Mack tied a career-high with 25 points for Butler (1-1) and Matt Howard had 23 points and nine rebounds, but the Bulldogs shot just 35 percent from the field and couldn't overcome a 24-point deficit.
Butler return four starters from last season's team that advanced to the national title game, but looked rattled at times in front of a sometimes frenzied crowd eager for the Cardinals to debut the tricked out 22,000-seat facility in style.
"I don't think it's rocket science, for whatever reason we got outplayed," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We got caught up in the atmosphere. I'd say the Big East predictions are wrong. From what I've seen, they're really good."
Pitino has called this a "bridge year" for the Cardinals, who lost three starters to graduation, one to the NBA and another to injury. He acknowledges he's sure when the Cardinals will reach the other side, but they took a couple of tentative steps against Butler.
Returning to the frenetic pace Pitino used to lead Providence and Kentucky to prominence earlier in his career, the Cardinals were energetic if not always crisp. Even better, they shared the ball, notching 18 assists on 27 field goals and turning away Butler's only sustained run in the second half.
"If we don't turn the ball over in this style, we'll be tough," Pitino said. "We did a good job of protecting the basketball."
Butler never led and trailed 50-26 midway through the second half before eventually climbing within 68-57 on a basket by Howard with 3:17 remaining.
Buckles responded with a 3-pointer and Louisville's defense produced a couple of key stops while Mack sat on the bench battling cramps.
The teams traded free throws and baskets the rest of the way before Louisville's Mike Marra sealed it with an emphatic one-handed dunk in the final seconds.
It was the signature moment of a night that belonged to the Cardinals.
"I was so exhausted, but I wasn't going to lay it up," Marra said, joking he wanted to bookend the 3-pointer he hit in the opening minute of the game to provide program's first points in the new arena.
Louisville ripped off the first eight points and just kept going, getting contributions from unlikely places.
Justice, an eastern Kentucky high school player who signed as a walk-on and only received a scholarship after a handful of departures in the offseason, filled in capably when Peyton Siva went to the bench in early foul trouble.
"For a freshman from the hills of Kentucky to come to this environment, he didn't want anybody else to handle the basketball but him," Pitino said. "It speaks volumes of his guts and his heart."
Freshman center Gorgui Dieng, a native of Senegal who wasn't cleared by the NCAA to play until a couple of weeks ago, blocked a shot and altered two others. Sophomore forward Stephan Van Treese, a little-used reserve last season, provided an adrenaline shot on defense and ran the floor with ease.
The Bulldogs, who went 12-1 on the road last season, looked intimidated at times.
Even the normally reserved Stevens was not immune to the charged atmosphere, drawing a rare technical foul while watching his team sleepwalk through the first half, but it wasn't enough to wake the Bulldogs out of an extended funk.
Howard collected three fouls in four minutes, the offense struggled to find someone other than Mack to make shots and the Bulldogs were dominated in the lane by the energized Cardinals.
"I think people will say Butler is not as good as advertised, that Louisville exposed Butler," Bulldogs guard Ronald Nored. "Louisville played really well. We really weren't focused on our jobs. We can't do that. We have to play better basketball. That's the bottom line."
Louisville roared into halftime with an 18-point lead, primed to open their new digs the same way they closed Freedom Hall last March.
The Cardinals stunned then top-ranked Syracuse last spring to stir the echoes at the old barn. The address changed, but the electricity was largely the same, for a night at least.
"This is just the beginning for us," Pitino said. "These players are going to get better and better and better as the season goes along."
|Terrence Jennings looks to be having some fun while dunking home two of his 13 points. (Getty Images)|
|Butler #16 (1-1)||23||50||73|
|Louisville (1-0) «||41||47||88|
|BUT:S. Mack 25 Pts
BUT:M. Howard 9 Reb
BUT:Z. Hahn 5 Ast
|LOU:R. Buckles 17 Pts
LOU:R. Buckles 11 Reb
LOU:M. Marra 5 Ast
|PLAYERS OF THE GAME|
|R. Nored, G||30||2-6||3-6||4||1||5||7|
|S. Mack, G||27||8-17||5-6||7||1||1||25|
|S. Vanzant, G||25||0-2||2-2||4||2||1||2|
|M. Howard, F||22||6-8||11-17||9||0||4||23|
|G. Butcher, F||8||0-2||0-0||0||0||1||0|
|A. Smith, C||22||1-6||1-2||8||0||2||3|
|Z. Hahn, G||19||1-7||2-2||0||5||3||4|
|K. Marshall, F||16||1-5||1-1||4||0||2||3|
|A. Anglin, G-F||9||0-1||0-0||2||0||4||0|
|C. Stigall, G||9||1-3||0-0||0||0||4||3|
|C. Hopkins, G||9||1-3||0-0||0||1||3||3|
|E. Fromm, F||3||0-0||0-0||0||0||1||0|
|G. Leiendecker, G||1||0-0||0-0||0||0||1||0|
|E. Kampen, C||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|T. Jennings, F||33||6-11||1-2||8||2||4||13|
|M. Marra, G||33||4-10||1-2||5||5||3||11|
|R. Buckles, F||31||6-12||3-7||11||2||4||17|
|K. Kuric, G||23||0-0||2-2||3||2||4||2|
|P. Siva, G||15||3-6||3-3||2||3||5||9|
|E. Justice, G||21||1-3||9-14||6||2||4||12|
|P. Knowles, G||18||3-11||5-6||1||2||2||12|
|C. Smith, G||10||1-2||3-4||3||0||1||5|
|S. Van Treese, F||9||2-2||1-3||2||0||0||5|
|G. Dieng, C||7||1-2||0-0||3||0||1||2|
|G. Goode, F||Did Not Play|
|J. Swopshire, F||Did Not Play|
|R. Phares, F||Did Not Play|
|J. Coleman, G-F||Did Not Play|
|R. Smith, G||Did Not Play|
|T. Henderson, G||Did Not Play|
|M. Jackson, G||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|