CINCINNATI — With the game on the line Saturday, Russ Smith wanted the ball.
He got it, then delivered a game-winning dagger with 2.2 seconds left, lifting No. 11 Louisville to a 58-57 victory over No. 7 Cincinnati.
"Honestly, it felt really great when it left my hands," said Smith, a 6-foot senior. "... It either would have been an air ball or it would have went straight through the net."
The shot, from the left wing, stunned Cincinnati and a Fifth Third Arena sellout crowd of 13,176.
The Bearcats failed to get a clean pass in bounds, the horn sounding as the teams scrambled for a loose ball.
With four games to play, Louisville (23-4, 12-2 American Athletic) kept its hopes alive for the league title. The Cardinals have won six in a row and 10 of 11.
Cincinnati (24-4, 13-2), which beat Louisville 69-66 on Jan. 30, has three AAC games to play.
"Obviously a hard-fought game, better described as a blood bath," Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said. "We came up one point short. I got my disappointments, but at the end of the day we didn't get the job done down the stretch. Defensively, we didn't get the job done; we had a three-point lead and gave up two layups. That was our watershed moment."
Saturday's loss was Cincinnati's first in 18 home games this season. Dating to last season, the Bearcats had won 19 in a row at home.
"Cincinnati's bad foul shooters made their free throws today, and we kept missing free throws," U of L Coach Rick Pitino said. "We went on a great run in the first half but we kept missing free throws, which was the bad part. But we came up with a big-time play at the end of the game with our half-court trap and not letting (Sean) Kilpatrick get the ball back. Our defense was huge down the stretch."
Kilpatrick scored 28 points and raised his career total to 2,018, joining Oscar Robertson as the only Bearcats to top the 2,000 mark.
His final point came on a free throw with 1:40 left, giving Cincinnati a 53-51 lead.
There was a lengthy delay moments later when an out of bounds call went to Louisville. After review, the call was reversed, then changed once more in U of L's favor.
Smith hit one of two free throws at 1:29, and then the Cards' trap kept the ball away from Kilpatrick.
Instead, it was up to Justin Jackson to knock down two free throws with 1:28 left, giving UC a 55-52 edge.
Smith countered by finding Montrezl Harrell for a dunk.
Kilpatrick did get the ball on the next trip down the floor, but his shot was rejected by Wayne Blackshear with 45 seconds left.
"Coach said that we were going to be in a trapping situation, and somehow he blew by Montrezl," Blackshear said. "And I was just in great position to get the block."
Harrell, who totaled 21 points and 10 rebounds, scored a layup with 26.3 seconds left to put U of L on top 56-55.
Cincinnati's Troy Caupain drained two free throws with 11.8 seconds left, putting the Bearcats up by a point and setting the stage for Smith.
"It was a great play, but I thought it was even a better play by Terry (Rozier) because he could have taken the shot, but he threw it to Russ," Pitino said.
"Everybody just went to Terry," Smith said. "When he raised up, he threw it to me and I got a decent look at the basket, and was able to get a shot off."
Smith finished with 10 points, while Rozier had 11.
Cincinnati missed 22 of its first 25 shots and finished 16 of 56 (28.6 percent), while making 20 of 25 free throws. U of L made 22 of 55 shots (40 percent), and only 11 of 22 free throws.
U of L used a 13-0 run to take a 21-9 lead. But Cincinnati finished the half on a 10-1 run to pull to within 22-19.
A 9-0 Cards burst early in the second half ignited a 17-5 flurry that put Louisville's lead back to nine, 44-35.
The margin was still nine, 51-42, before Kilpatrick scored nine points in an 11-0 Cincinnati rally that gave the Bearcats a 53-51 lead.
In the end, Pitino said defense was the difference.
"'The better team will win this game tonight,'" was his pre-game message to his team. "The better offensive team will not necessarily win, even though we shot better than they did. I told them 'you have got to win the game on defense,' and we did down the stretch."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.