LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino bristled earlier this week when he was asked by a reporter if he was concerned about his team overlooking South Florida on Wednesday night with the Kentucky game looming three days later.
But the Cards had lost the game preceding the UK contest three straight seasons (Cincinnati, UMass and UNLV). So while a 73-52 win over an outmanned South Florida squad in its Big East opener might not do much for its overall profile, U of L at least has some rare momentum going into Saturday's showdown in Rupp Arena.
After dropping back-to-back home games to Charlotte and Western Carolina, the Cardinals (10-3) have won five straight.
Edgar Sosa led the Cards with 16 points, and Jared Swopshire and Samardo Samuels added 12 apiece.
It wasn't a totally smooth ride, though. The Cards labored to put away the Bulls until the second half in a rather uninspiring performance. U of L also had just 10 assists to go with 15 turnovers.
But the Bulls didn't have enough ammunition to seriously challenge Louisville. Already playing without leading scorer and rebounder Augustus Gilchrist (18.8 points per game; 7.4 rebounds per game, out with an ankle injury until January), its second-leading scorer Dominique Jones (18.6) picked up his fourth foul with 17:29 remaining and fouled out at the 12:52 mark.
"We did some good things and some poor things," Pitino said. "But we got a victory. They were depleted, and we got them in foul trouble. We didn't play well, but we got a Big East victory."
A Samuels tip-in of his own miss gave the Cards a 28-17 first-half lead, but USF went on a 9-0 run at the end of the period to close to within one (32-31) at halftime.
Jones' foul trouble coincided with a 13-0 U of L run that put the game out of reach. Sosa scored six points during the spurt, Jerry Smith added a steal and dunk and a Samuels bucket ballooned the lead to 50-34. Jones fouled out on the Cards' next trip down the floor.
Pitino credited Smith, who finished with six points, six rebounds and three steals, as the catalyst for the run.
"He was the guy who gave us a big lift with his defense and rebounding," he said.
The two teams played out the string the rest of the way, with the Freedom Hall crowd chanting, "Beat UK!" as the final seconds ticked down. It was also only the second time in five years that Louisville won its Big East opener. Both victories came against South Florida.
"We did what we had to do," U of L junior guard Preston Knowles said. "It wasn't pretty, but we came up with stops and made a big run when we needed to."
Pitino indicated his team still has a long way to go despite the modest winning streak. He'd specifically like his club to rebound better and be more effective defending off the dribble.
"I think we're taking baby steps," he said. "We're nowhere near where I would like to be, but we are improving and getting better. But it's much better than it was two weeks ago."
Now Pitino and the Cards can turn their attention to No. 3 Kentucky, which is unbeaten in its first 14 contests.
"They're one of the fastest, most athletic teams I've seen at UK," Pitino said. "We know what we're up against. It's not a surprise to us. We have to find a way to limit their athleticism. It's not going to be easy. Nobody's been able to do it yet. That's why their undefeated."