LOUISVILLE — It seems to happen every year. The University of Louisville suffers a couple of head-scratching losses in December that throw the entire Derby City into a tizzy. And then at some point, Rick Pitino and Co. manage to get it all together.
The Cardinals, who were labeled as one of the season's early disappointments after losses to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV, showed the nation last night that they're doing just fine, using a late 19-3 run to knock off top-ranked Pitt 69-63 in front of a Freedom Hall crowd of 20,082.
It was the second big run of the game for the Cards, who used a 17-3 surge in the first half to erase an early 13-point hole.
Earl Clark, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Saturday, capped off the late rally with a free-throw-line jumper as the shot clock expired to give Louisville a 64-58 lead with 45.2 seconds remaining.
Afterward, Pitino credited his players for the resiliency they showed while trying to find themselves.
"The key is, we didn't get discouraged," he said. "We've been through this bus ride before. It just takes us awhile. We knew it would be a little difficult now (in the Big East), but we said we could do it. There was no panic."
There are only two undefeated teams now in the Big East: Louisville (13-3, 4-0) and Marquette (16-2, 5-0). Louisville's win knocked the Panthers (16-1, 4-1) out of the ranks of the unbeaten and will probably cost them the top spot in the polls next week after No. 2 Wake Forest beat Clemson to stay undefeated.
Pittsburgh came into the game lauded for its tough, physical play, but the Cards outrebounded the Panthers 42-38, and the Cardinals' front line of Clark, Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels outplayed Pitt's frontcourt tandem of Sam Young and DeJuan Blair. Williams scored 20 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists. Clark added 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Samuels had 10 points and seven boards.
"We definitely had something to prove," Samuels said. "All the talk coming into the game was that Pitt was giants, that they were monsters. But we look at ourselves as monsters, too."
Pitt looked as if they might land an early knockout blow. The Panthers drained five early threes, including a Levance Fields triple off an offensive rebound that gave them a 20-7 lead at the 13:54 mark.
The Cards then switched to a 2-3 zone and slowly crept back into the game. Williams scored on a drive, hit two free throws and converted a three-point play to bring Louisville to within four, 23-19. Two Samuels free throws capped a 17-3 run that gave the Cards their first lead at 24-23.
Pitt's rhythm was also affected by foul trouble. Young and Blair played just 11 and 10 minutes in the first half as the Panthers were whistled for 14 fouls. Still, Pittsburgh went into the locker room with a 32-30 halftime lead.
Young helped the Panthers quickly re-establish control in the second half. His three-pointer off an inbounds play pushed Pitt ahead 41-35 and, minutes later, he drained another three and delivered a windmill dunk off a steal that set up a 10-point Panthers lead (55-45) at the nine-minute mark.
The Cardinals, just as they did in the first half, dug deep and charged right back into it. A 9-0 run capped off by a Clark fast-break dunk closed the gap to 55-54 at 6:30. A Samuels dunk off a nice feed from Edgar Sosa tied the game at 58 with 3:51 remaining. Williams scored on a drive at the 2:52 mark to reclaim the lead for U of L (60-58).
Sosa then drew a charge on Fields, and Clark knocked down two free throws for a four-point Cardinals lead with 2:17 left.
Pittsburgh had a chance to cut it to two, but Jermaine Dixon (team-high 19 points) missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Blair missed on a putback attempt at 1:22.
Fields came into the game with a nearly 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but he coughed it up six times to go with his seven assists. Pitt turned it over 20 times for the game. The Panthers shot 30.6 percent in the second half after a 41 percent showing in the first 20 minutes.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, hit a blistering 54.5 percent in the final frame after a 29.4 percent first half.
Pitt has several players from the New York area, but the Cards showed they have some of that Big Apple toughness as well, particularly on the defensive end.
"I think we have (toughness) because we're a defense team," Pitino said. "If you rely on offense, you can't come back. But because we're so good at defense, we believe we can always come back."
The Cards used their last-second win over Kentucky as a springboard for three straight barnburner wins over upper- echelon Big East teams Villanova, Notre Dame and Pitt. That 14-point loss to Western now seems like ages ago.
"I think, once the effort level got to where we wanted to, we became a good basketball team," Pitino said. "Ever since the Kentucky game, everybody has picked it up. Each and every one of them."