LOUISVILLE — Providence didn't come into Wednesday night's game ranked in the Top 25, and most projections had them on the outside looking in as far as the NCAA Tournament goes.
But U of L Coach Rick Pitino pointed to the offensive prowess of the Friars and gave his team a stern warning before the game.
"They're a great offensive basketball team," Pitino said. "They're like Notre Dame on steroids. I know that's a bad word to use in this day and age, but that's the way they are."
Sure enough, the Friars came out with 'A-Rod'-type juice, connecting on 75 percent of its shots in the first half to take a one-point halftime lead.
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Thankfully for the Cards, the Providence juice wore off in the second half. Louisville controlled tempo and cranked up the defense, and as a result the Friars hit just 30 percent (9-for-30) in the final 20 minutes. U of L took control with a 22-3 run midway through the second half and coasted to a 94-76 win in Freedom Hall.
Senior guard Edgar Sosa led six Cardinal players in double figures with 18 and Terrence Williams chipped in with 17 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Freshman center Samardo Samuels also had 17 points, and junior forward Earl Clark flirted with a triple-double for the second consecutive game with 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Clark had 12 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in U of L's 99-54 win over DePaul on Sunday.
The win allowed Louisville (20-5, 11-2) to keep pace with Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Marquette atop the Big East standings.
Providence was on fire early, as their guards continually beat Louisville off the dribble and either finished at the rim or kicked the ball out for open threes.
"They came out firing," Samuels said. "Those were tough shots they hit."
"When you run and shoot quickly with this team, they'll blow everybody out," Pitino said. "You've got to make them play D and try to get to the offensive glass."
Pitino joked that he nearly had an aneurysm and needed smelling salts at halftime, but sophomore Preston Knowles proved to be the best medicine for Pitino's ailments. Knowles, fresh off a 19-point performance against DePaul, ignited the big second half. First he hit a baseline jumper to bring the Cards to within 53-52, and then he fed Terrence Jennings for a layup and three-point play to put U of L back in front 55-53 at 13:51. Knowles finished with 11 points, and Pitino went nostalgic when asked about the impact of the sophomore guard from Clark County.
"I call him 'The Microwave' after (former Detroit Pistons guard) Vinnie Johnson," Pitino said. "Vinnie wasn't coming in for his passing and rebounding. He gives us a big lift. He's very confident."
When asked about the comparison to 'The Microwave,' Knowles said, "Who's Vinnie Johnson? I don't know who that is, but he must be a great guy. If he played in the NBA I'll take it."
Williams, who seems fully recovered from a wrist injury that has slowed him the past week, then added a three-pointer and steal that led to a Jerry Smith layup, and official Jim Burr hit Providence Coach Keno Davis with a technical at the 12:04 mark. Smith knocked down the ensuing free throws to cap a 13-0 run that gave U of L a 10-point cushion at 63-53.
The Cardinals kept the heat on. Williams, who had his jumper working all night, hit a contested 18-footer to make 65-54, and Smith followed with a three to push the lead to 68-54 with nine minutes to play.
In the nine-minute stretch when U of L went on its game-changing run, the Friars missed 11 consecutive shots and turned over the ball six times. By the time Jonathan Kale scored with 8:10 on the clock, the Cards were in control with a 72-58 lead.
Louisville will now embark on a two-game road trip, first visiting Cincinnati on Saturday and then heading to Georgetown on Monday. If the Cardinals are to make a deep March run, Pitino knows he'll need his talented frontcourt combo of Williams and Clark to lead the charge.
"I told them this time of year, you've got to stop (just) being a good college basketball player," he said. "If you're going to be an NBA basketball player, this is the time you've got to pick it up."