LOUISVILLE — Sunday afternoon's Pittsburgh-Louisville tilt had a little bit of everything: the expected tough defense and physical play, clutch shots, overtime, and even a Cardinal cheerleader who nearly affected the final outcome.
After the dust settled, U of L left the KFC Yum Center with a hard-fought 62-59 win over the fourth-ranked Panthers, but not without plenty of drama in the final half-second.
Louisville looked home free when Kyle Kuric's breakaway slam gave the Cardinals a five-point lead with 0.5 seconds left. But the officials then huddled and called a technical foul on an unnamed Cardinal cheerleader for prematurely running on the floor and celebrating.
Pitt's Ashton Gibbs then hit the two technical free throws to bring the Panthers within three and give them a chance for a length-of-the-court inbounds pass and game-tying three.
Kuric, who was whistled for a controversial technical following a dunk in an overtime loss at Notre Dame earlier this month, was on pins and needles as he waited for the referees' call.
"I thought (the technical) was on me," he said. "It happened before. I looked over and saw Coach getting (ticked) and thought, 'Uh-oh.'"
But Gibbs' desperation 30-footer from the right sideline was off the mark, allowing Coach Rick Pitino, the crowd of 22,758, and the Cardinal cheerleader to finally exhale.
"I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but you could actually lose a game that way," Pitino said.
Fortunately for the cheerleader, his gaffe didn't cost Louisville the game as the Cards improved to 22-7 overall and 10-5 in the Big East. The conference title is probably out of reach — U of L trails Pitt (25-4, 13-3) by two games with two games to go — but the Cardinals could still finish as high as second and are in good shape for a double-bye in the Big East Tournament.
Not even Pitino, who talked in the pre-season of this being a "bridge" year for the program, saw this coming.
"I thought it would be a .500 team," said Pitino, who later clarified by saying, "We didn't have high expectations. We just looked to make the tournament. That's why I said bridge year. I didn't want to say rebuilding. We were planning ahead. We're still nowhere near our potential because of injuries, but our players have done an amazing job of overcoming it. We really just want to take care of the present and not think ahead. We're building the bridge the right way."
The Cards didn't shoot great, hitting just 34.4 percent overall and 26.7 percent (8-for-30) on threes. But Louisville seized control in the first half thanks to its usual pesky zone defense, which forced Pitt to miss 14 of its 17 shots. The Cards also battled the rough-and-tumble Panthers to a virtual standstill on the boards, getting out-rebounded by just one (39-38).
Pitino was highly complimentary of the play of Kuric, who had seven boards to go along with his 12 points, and Mike Marra, who continued his emergence from a season-long shooting slump to finish with 11 points (3-for-8 on threes) and three assists. The Cards led by as many as 12 in the first half and held a 31-22 advantage at the break.
The Panthers came out in the second half and scored six straight points in the first 95 seconds to close to 31-28. Louisville maintained a lead between three and six points before Pitt's Brad Wanamaker almost single-handedly got his team to overtime.
First, he hit a jumper from the elbow while being fouled by Preston Knowles, and the ensuing free throw brought Pitt to within 49-47 with 5:57 remaining. After Peyton Siva cashed in on four straight free throws to put U of L ahead 53-49 at 2:55, Wanamaker threw over the top of the Louisville press downcourt to Gilbert Brown, whose dunk and three-point play cut it to 53-52. Wanamaker hit a short jumper to tie the game at 54 at 1:09, then hit another one from almost the same spot to tie it again at 56 with 18 seconds left.
Wanamaker also blocked a Kuric layup at the end of regulation to force overtime and finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and three steals.
"I've been watching Pitt all year, and to me (Wanamaker) is their best player by far," Knowles said. "Gibbs gets a lot of the attention, but Wanamaker makes them go."
It was the Cards' third overtime game of the year. They came out in attack mode in a 79-78 double OT win at UConn on Jan. 29 but were ambushed 15-5 by Notre Dame in the extra period. Pitino wanted to be sure the Cards struck first on Pitt, and they did just that when Knowles set a screen that freed Kuric for a three and a 59-56 lead.
Knowles and Kuric, who are roommates on the road, have developed a unique on-court chemistry. It was evident earlier this season when Knowles hit Kuric for the game-winning layup in a comeback win over Marquette, and Knowles said he and Kuric came up with the play that freed him for the three on their own.
"That's not something we really practice; that's just communication between me and Kyle," said Knowles, whose seven assists made up for an off night shooting (3-for-12 overall, 1-for-8 on threes). "We just kind of look at each other, and he knew the pick was coming and he made a big play."
Pitino was asked if he learned anything about his squad from Sunday's win and replied, "I already knew. They don't have to prove anything to me. A great attitude is a great attitude."
Rakeem Buckles out for season
University of Louisville sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first half of the Cardinals' 62-59 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday and will be out for the remainder of the season, the school announced Sunday night.
He will have surgery within the next two weeks and his timetable for recovery will be determined after surgery.
Buckles had been back for the last five games, returning to action for the first time in six weeks after missing 12 games against Syracuse on Feb. 12. He broke his left index finger during practice on Dec. 30 and returned to practice six weeks after the injury on Feb. 10. He had surgery to repair the injury on Dec. 30, which included the insertion of five pins. He missed the Cardinals' games against Kentucky and their first 11 Big East games.
At the time he broke his finger in December, Buckles was leading the Cardinals and ranked ninth in the conference in rebounding, averaging 7.5 per game, and was averaging 8.2 points this season.
The Cardinals have two regular season games remaining this season, facing Providence in the KFC Yum! Center on Wednesday and playing at West Virginia on Saturday.