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Cardinals win conference for first time

ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) -- What great timing for Larry O'Bannon and Louisville. With the postseason just around the bend, they're on a roll.

O'Bannon missed just one shot Saturday, scoring 24 points as the ninth-ranked Cardinals clinched the Conference USA regular-season title outright by beating DePaul 66-62.

"He's in a zone and he worked himself into that zone from last summer to this point. He deserves what's happening," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of his senior guard.

The Cardinals (26-4, 14-2), who'd already clinched the top seed in the conference tournament by beating Charlotte on Thursday, won for the 15th time in 16 games and finished 9-1 on the road.

They played their typical pressure defense and got a second straight offensive outburst from O'Bannon.

"We had to make big shots to win this game," Pitino said.

And O'Bannon did just that.

He had 18 of his points in the second half, including 10 in the final six minutes. He finished the game 6-for-7 from the field while hitting all five of his 3-point attempts and all seven of his free throws.

"I really wasn't thinking about taking over the game. My teammates got me open, they set some solid screens and I got open shots," O'Bannon said.

O'Bannon followed a career-high 33-point effort against Charlotte on Thursday night with another stellar performance, despite the short turnaround.

"If you come and watch us practice, we do it daily," O'Bannon said of his team's potential to make shots. "I've been able to carry it over into the game."

Sammy Mejia led DePaul (18-9, 10-6) with 21 points and Drake Diener pitched in 15 for the Blue Demons, who are hoping for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, despite four losses in their final six games.

"To come up short again ... it's tough," Diener said.

Pitino said the Blue Demons were deserving and were easily one of the best 65 teams in the country. He said he'd put them in the top 30, but then again he's not on the selection committee.

"I don't know," DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. "I have my head in the sand as we play basketball games. I'm worried about games. I like my team. I think we're good."

Louisville was good again Saturday, even though leading scorer
Francisco Garcia was as cold as O'Bannon was hot, missing nine of his 10 field-goal attempts and scoring just five points, nearly 11 under his average.

But Garcia made up for it in other areas with five rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocked shots.

DePaul scoring leader Quemont Greer, averaging 18.7, also struggled in his final home game, going just 4-for-16 from the field -- including an airball on a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left -- and scoring nine.

"I've trusted him for three years. That's just one play," Leitao said. "We still had time afterward and there were other plays before that where we missed some point-blank shots."

O'Bannon's fifth 3-pointer gave the Cardinals the lead for good at 60-57 with 4:28 left.

Mejia's layup cut it to one with just under three minutes remaining. Garcia, who didn't score in the first 26½ minutes, hit two free throws with 57.8 seconds left to put Louisville up 62-59.

Ellis Myles then blocked Greer's layup attempt; after a missed follow-up shot, Louisville's Juan Palacios missed a free throw at the other end. That gave DePaul a final chance with 35 seconds to go.

But Greer shot an airball from the corner with 16 seconds to play; after a foul, O'Bannon made two from the line with 13.4 seconds left to put the Cards up 64-59. He hit two more with five seconds to go to secure the win.

"We covered O'Bannon well. He made open shots off others penetrating or he made shots over people," Leitao said.

Garcia went scoreless during a furiously paced first half but the Cardinals, behind 54 percent shooting, still managed a 34-32 lead.

DePaul's loss was just its second in 16 games at home this season.