LOUISVILLE — Louisville's 69-63 win over West Virginia on Saturday turned out to be the best of both worlds for Rick Pitino.
U of L was able to improve to 17-3 overall and 8-0 in the Big East, keeping pace with Marquette atop the conference.
But the fact that the Cardinals blew most of a 20-point halftime lead will help U of L's coach keep his team grounded headed into Monday night's showdown with Connecticut, which could be the No. 1 team in the nation in the next poll.
"It is better off the way if happened because our players have a tendency to fall in love with themselves too much," Pitino said. "It was probably better off that we had a war down the stretch. All of that was good preparation for us."
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The Cardinals players didn't disagree with their coach's assessment.
"If we had beaten them by 25-30 points, we go in with a different mind-set on Monday," junior guard Jerry Smith said.
Louisville was spectacular in the first 20 minutes.
West Virginia took an early 10-5 lead on a Darryl Bryant jumper, but then freshman center Terrence Jennings entered the game and sparked a 20-3 run. His rebound bucket tied the game at 10, and during his seven-minute stint, Jennings added a pair of dunks, a couple of blocks and a nice baseline reverse basket that gave U of L a 25-13 advantage at the 8:05 mark.
The 6-foot-9 Jennings was barely in the rotation in December, but he followed up a nine-point, two-block performance against Syracuse with a career-high 13 points in 17 minutes of action.
"He just keeps improving, getting better and better," Pitino said. "In the beginning, he could not run full speed, get a pass in traffic, come to a jump stop and dunk the ball."
Jennings' contributions helped offset subpar performances from U of L's frontline starters. Terrence Williams had just eight points, and Earl Clark had only four points and five rebounds.
"I'm just working on my game and trying to get better every day," Jennings said. "If you just play hard, it'll all come to you. Plus, I've got a great group of guys around me."
The Cards were also bolstered by the re-emergence of Smith. Smith had been mired in a season-long shooting slump. His scoring (6.5) and shooting percentage (.383) were the lowest of his career.
But Smith was 7-for-8 on Saturday, including 4-for-5 from three-point range, for a season-high 20 points.
Smith was also able to beat the over-pursuing Mountaineers defense for a handful of backdoor layups, which Pitino cited as the key to his breakout performance.
"I told Jerry the other day that we're not the only team who scouts," Pitino said. "Teams know that he and Will Scott are the only knockdown shooters we have, and they're not going to let you spot up and beat us. We told him he needs to use screens, move without the ball and stay active, and he was able to go backdoor."
Smith's back-to-back threes late in the first half sent Louisville into halftime with a 45-25 lead. Pitino counted 33 first-half deflections, which he said was an all-time high for any team he's coached.
"We played as good in the first half as we could play," he said.
Louisville struggled to take care of the ball all afternoon, and that got West Virginia back in the game. Williams committed back-to-back turnovers that led to two free throws and a short jumper by Alex Ruoff, and suddenly the Cards were up only five (63-58) with 3:18 left.
Two Samardo Samuels free throws and a Williams transition dunk finally closed the door on the Mountaineers' run, but Pitino will have plenty of teaching tools on U of L's day off to prepare for UConn.
Williams committed seven of Louisville's season-high 26 turnovers, which offset the Cardinals' 56 percent shooting.
"It was tale of two halves," Pitino said "You have to give them credit; they make it very difficult to score. We were doing a really nice job of going backdoor and executing. We shot a good percentage, but we kept turning the ball over too much. We kept picking up our dribble too much. They are a very tough team to play against, but we are really happy with the victory."