WASHINGTON — Louisville is in a wild race for the regular-season championship of the Big East, where four of the nation's top eight teams lead the standings.
Georgetown, the two-time defending regular-season champion, is not a member of that quartet. The Hoyas are all but conceding that their only road to the NCAA Tournament runs through the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Louisville's upperclassmen topped Georgetown's youth 76-58 Monday night, led by Earl Clark's 22 points, eight rebounds and four steals. The No. 6 Cardinals (22-5, 13-2) overcame 16 turnovers with solid defense and good first-half shooting to win their fourth straight and move into a first-place tie with Connecticut.
So much for Louisville Coach Rick Pitino's early-season thought that the regular-season champ would have five or six losses.
"I was hoping to be 12-6," said Pitino, whose team improved to 7-1 on the road in conference play. "I thought that would be a very good season, 12-6, in this league in this year, but we've been a great road team."
The Cardinals started 9-for-9 from the field — their first miss coming nearly 11 minutes in — and were 7-for-7 from three-point range well into the second half. The marksmanship was more of a necessity than a luxury because they were so careless with the ball, but the initial shooting burst was enough to build a lead that kept Georgetown at bay throughout the second half.
"I thought we were doing a good job, but we were just turning it over too much," Pitino said. "That was killing us."
Samardo Samuels, Terrence Williams and Preston Knowles added 10 points apiece for the Cardinals, who had a 17-point first-half lead cut to eight in the second half. Louisville shot 15-for-35 after the 9-for-9 start, but the defense forced 14 Georgetown turnovers and held the Hoyas to 31 percent shooting after halftime.
Chris Wright scored 12 points, and Greg Monroe had 10 for the Hoyas (14-12, 5-10), who have lost nine of 11. Georgetown has played six teams currently ranked in the top 10, and they'll make it seven against No. 10 Villanova on Saturday. The Hoyas are 2-4 in those games.
The loss also dropped the Hoyas to 12th place in the Big East six weeks after they were ranked No. 9 in the country.
Asked about his team's NCAA Tournament chances, Coach John Thompson III said: "If there's one good thing about being in this conference, it's that you get to go to New York, and you get a chance to fight, and you get a chance to win it."
Samuels got the better of Monroe in the battle of freshman centers — at least while the game was still in the balance. Samuels got behind the Georgetown center to score two of the Cardinals' first three baskets and finished 4-for-5 from the field. Monroe, by contrast, didn't take a shot until a wayward 16-foot jumper more than five minutes into the game and went 4-for-7.
The Cardinals didn't miss a field goal until Clark's short jumper barely hit the rim with 9:01 remaining in the half, but Louisville already had a 26-13 lead.