LOUISVILLE — A month ago, Louisville's game with Oral Roberts looked like just a play date on the Cardinals' schedule on the way to the big showdown with Kentucky on Jan. 2.
But two straight ugly non-conference losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina added an extra sense of urgency to the Cards' matchup with the Golden Eagles, who arrived in Louisville a day after its founder and namesake died at the age of 91.
The Cards were able to get back on the winning track in a big way thanks to a full-court press that overwhelmed the Eagles. ORU turned the ball over 21 times, many of those coming during a 24-2 Cardinals run that turned a 10-10 first-half tie into a 94-57 blowout.
"This game was huge," said U of L senior guard Edgar Sosa, who led all scorers with 18 points. "Not to say that we had lost confidence, but our spirits were down after losing two games we felt like we should have won."
It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Pitino's reeling bunch. Sophomore center Samardo Samuels, roundly criticized after a two-rebound performance in the loss to Western Carolina, bounced back with 17 points and seven boards.
"I was really hungry tonight," he said. "After (Western Carolina), I was really questioning myself. It was one of the lowest points of my basketball career."
Samuels said a pep talk from his mother helped snap him out of the doldrums.
After he hit two free throws to put the Cards ahead 12-10, Sosa hit a three off a steal, tipped in his miss following another ORU turnover and then drilled another three to put U of L up 20-10.
Senior guard Jerry Smith then hit a three of his own and got a layup off a Sosa steal to cap the big run and give the Cardinals a 34-12 lead with 8:50 left in the first half. The Cards led 52-29 at halftime, then cruised.
Injuries left Oral Roberts with just eight scholarship players, and it showed against the Louisville press.
"Coach 'P' told us that they didn't have too many guys, so let's just go all out with the press and see if we can wear them down," Sosa said.
Louisville was also tenacious in its half-court defense, holding ORU to 38.9 percent shooting. The wide-open threes that were available to Charlotte and Western Carolina disappeared against the Golden Eagles, and U of L enjoyed a 43-31 advantage on the boards. The Cards also had a season-high 26 assists.
"The ball movement was great on offense; the defense was terrific," Pitino said. "I know Oral Roberts was short-handed, but we played really well. If we play that type of basketball, we're going to win."
Oral Roberts Coach Scott Sutton, the son of former UK coach Eddie Sutton who also played at Transylvania for two seasons, was disappointed.
"This is my 11th year (at ORU), and this is about as poorly as we've ever played," he said. "But give Louisville credit; they made us play that way. We knew coming in that we couldn't turn the ball over, and we had 15 turnovers in the first half. It's just hard for me to believe that they could get beat here (at Freedom Hall) twice in a row. They were very good tonight. Once they smelled blood, they started attacking."
U of L hosts Western Kentucky on Saturday. Pitino said he's not pushing the panic button despite his team's early erratic play, which has become sort of an annual rite.
"I told (the players) to stop panicking and worrying," he said. "This has gone on for three straight years. You don't crown a champion until the end of year. I'm not worried about improving. They'll work hard and get better. This team is nowhere near reaching its potential. Each guy can get significantly better."