LOUISVILLE — Louisville Coach Rick Pitino warned his team the same open looks that had been available against Western Kentucky and Morgan State would not be there Friday against the length and athleticism of 11th-ranked Kentucky.
He was proven right in Kentucky's 78-63 win in the KFC Yum Center, but the coach said his team's lack of execution was more of a factor.
Thanks in large part to a second-half hot streak by Preston Knowles, U of L's field-goal (46.3) and three-point (40.0) percentages were respectable. But the Cardinals had to work extremely hard for every shot, and even 68 percent second-half shooting couldn't negate a first half that saw them make just 10 of 32 (31.3 percent) and fall behind 35-24 at the break.
UK's lineup that featured 6-foot-6 DeAndre Liggins pressuring the ball and 6-7 Darius Miller and 6-8 Terrence Jones on the wings appeared to disrupt the U of L offense.
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Pitino said the game plan was to move the ball and operate from the inside out, but too many times the Cards settled for contested three-point shots.
Louisville's first possession saw Kyle Kuric get a three-pointer rejected by Jones.
"It was more of us not paying attention," Pitino said when asked about UK's defense. "We knew they'd come after us (on the perimeter). And on the first play what do we do? We take a lazy, contested jump shot rather then ball-fake and make the next pass."
Knowles, a Clark County graduate, started making some of those contested threes in the second half, scoring 10 straight points to trim an 18-point deficit to 10 (57-47) with 8:59 remaining. He finished with 22 points on 6-for-10 three-point shooting.
"Preston held us down," said U of L junior guard Chris Smith, who did his part for the Cardinals' cause with 15 points, six rebounds and four assists.
But it all turned out to be fool's gold. Knowles hit just one more shot the rest of the way, and UK eventually expanded its lead to 17 (73-56) on the second of Josh Harrellson's back-to-back layups with 3:07 remaining. Pitino kept lamenting his team's lack of offensive execution in the first half.
"We needed more ball movement," he said.
When asked about Knowles' hot streak, he said, "It was very good, but by then it's too late. We've got to stop hunting shots early on. That's what got us beat against Drexel, and it's what got us behind (today)."
Knowles agreed with Pitino's assessment.
"When I get in a zone, I'm pretty good," Knowles said. "But I took a couple of bad shots in that first half that hurt us, and I have to take responsibility for that."
Louisville doesn't seem to have the personnel to generate much offense in the paint. Freshman Gorgui Dieng is still learning the game, and senior Terrence Jennings doesn't have much of a post-up game, instead getting his points on put-backs and dunks. The Cards were also playing without their only true power forwards in sophomore Rakeem Buckles (broken finger) and junior Jared Swopshire (groin injury).
That forced Pitino to turn to 6-4 wing players Kuric and Mike Marra at the power forward position, with the 6-2 Smith at small forward. That lineup worked at various points in U of L's 11-1 start, but the Cats were able to expose it. The 6-10 Harrellson had a career game with 23 points and 14 rebounds, and Kentucky outscored Louisville in the paint 36-26.
"We've beaten Butler, UNLV and Western Kentucky so it's a good lineup, but it wasn't good tonight," Pitino said. "It's going to hurt us in the long run, so we've got to get something figured out."