LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rick Pitino can stop wondering if his surprising team is legit. At least for now.
The victory gave the Cardinals (8-0) their first marquee win of the season. Louisville spent the early portion of its schedule overwhelming largely overmatched teams. Pitino pointed to the Rebels as an important test.
The Cardinals passed behind the play of Knowles, who shook off a miserable first half to play perhaps his best basketball of the year.
"We [proved] we can play with great competition," Knowles said. "UNLV is a great team. We don't want to hang our hat on this victory, but it was a great one."
Tre'Von Willis led the Rebels with 17 points and Oscar Bellfield added 16, but the Rebels saw their best start to a season in 20 years come to an end during a lifeless second half.
UNLV (9-1) appeared to be in command when a 3-pointer by Bellfield gave the Rebels a 45-36 lead with 16:51 to play. Things slowly unraveled, however, as the Rebels started missing shots and making turnovers. UNLV entered the game shooting 54 percent from the field, but shot just 9 of 21 (42 percent) after the break and turned it over 10 times in the second half.
"We missed a shot, started standing a little bit, turned it over a time or two and they got on a good roll and we weren't able to withstand that as well as we need to," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger.
Kyle Kuric started a game-turning 21-6 run with a 3-pointer before Knowles got going. He struggled in the first half, missing both of his shots in eight foul-troubled minutes. His confidence, however, was hardly shaken.
"My thing was getting the lead back and putting my team in a position to win," he said.
Knowles hit a pull-up jumper in the lane and a couple of free throws before blowing past Derrick Jasper, a former player at rival Kentucky, for a layup to tie the game at 49.
The Rebels went back in front on a jumper by Justin Hawkins, but Knowles hit a 3-pointer at the top of the key to put Louisville up 52-51. The senior added a runner in the lane and another 3-pointer to push the lead to 57-51.
UNLV had no response even after Louisville starting point guard Peyton Siva went to the bench with four fouls and 8:52 to go. The Cardinals didn't miss a beat when freshman Elisha Justice stepped in, slowly extending the lead behind solid defense that harassed one of the nation's top shooting teams.
"We didn't do the things we have to do to win," Kruger said. "We'll learn from this and pay more attention to details and get back and get better."
Smith knocked down a 3-pointer to push Louisville's lead to nine and Justice finished a break with a difficult layup to make it 68-57 with 4:48 remaining as the Cardinals silenced some of their doubters.
Pitino called the Rebels "legit" based on their solid start, which included wins over Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and Nevada, while he remained unsure about his team even as it dominated a soft schedule. He's called this a "bridge" season, saying it would lay the foundation for the program for years to come.
He softened his stance after the Cardinals beat the Rebels, whom he had called before the game the second-best team in the country behind No. 1 Duke.
"The future can be this year," he allowed.
Particularly if Louisville continues to get production from surprising places. Kuric and Chris Smith both scored 17 points off the bench to overcome a shaky performance by starters Rakeem Buckles, Terrence Jennings and Mike Marra.
Kuric entered the game with 17 points all season and had missed the last two games after sustaining a concussion in a win over Florida International. Smith, a transfer from Manhattan College, spent most of Louisville's first seven games playing with the second unit.
Yet both helped steady the Cardinals after an early onslaught by the Rebels. Louisville missed its first eight shots and appeared on its way to being blown out before Kuric and Smith got going.
Smith, the younger brother of Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, hit a 3-pointer and a runner in the lane to snap Louisville out of its early game funk and breathe some life into the Cardinals.
"It was a really big game for me," Smith said. "When I woke up this morning I had a mean face on like 'We have to win this game.' I was ready."
Still, UNLV ended the half on an 8-1 surge behind selfless passing. Bellfield and Jasper both knocked down 3-pointers after teammates passed up open shots to give the Rebels momentum heading into the break up 38-33.
It wouldn't last, as Knowles and company responded to keep Louisville unbeaten through eight games for the first time in Pitino's tenure.
"It's a big game because they are UNLV, they beat us two years in a row and they were ranked," Siva said. "We're just going out there with a tournament mindset."