Rick Pitino doesn't like losing, especially to Kentucky.
But the Louisville coach liked the effort he got on the final day of 2011, even if it was a 69-62 road loss to the third-ranked Wildcats.
"I have coached a lot of teams that have given great effort, but I have never coached a team that is willing to give the effort that this team gives," Pitino said. "Unfortunately, there are no moral victories."
Nobody epitomized No. 4 Louisville's effort more than Russ Smith. The 6-foot sophomore from Briar wood, N.Y., came off the bench to total 30 points, five rebounds and three steals.
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That wasn't enough to offset UK's 57-31 domination of rebounds, plus a 32-18 difference at the free-throw line.
U of L shot 20-for-62 (32.3 percent) to UK's 17-for-57 (29.8 percent).
Good defense or bad offense?
"Sometimes maybe you work so hard on defense that maybe you don't have your legs on offense," Pitino said. "It happens at times. A guy like Russ, he's gasping for air. He can't even answer me he's so worn out. But he's still diving, he's still clawing. He's a very unique basketball player."
Then Pitino added a playful one-liner: "He almost set the assist record today — playing the most minutes without one."
Smith did his damage in 27 minutes of action.
"I play hard," he said. "I leave it on the floor. And I felt as if maybe if I go by some guys, keep my confidence, stuff will start going in. I just stayed confident all 40 minutes, offensively and defensively."
Confidence lacked last season. Smith pondered not returning to U of L after averaging 2.2 points over 17 games and just 96 minutes.
"I wanted to (transfer), but that was just me being frustrated," Smith said. "I always listen to my dad and my mom and my trainer, and ask them what's best for me, and (was told) to stick it out. And I didn't want to let 'Coach P' down after a dismal season. I just wanted to stick it out and get through the hump."
Smith shot 10-for-20 from the field Saturday, 3-for-8 from the three-point line, and went 7-for-10 at the free-throw line. That gives him six consecutive double-digit scoring efforts, and seven in his last eight games. Over the last eight games, he's averaging 18 points. He also has 19 steals in his last five games
In Saturday's matchup of 12-1 teams, Kentucky was poised for a blowout when it led 31-16 with five minutes left in the half.
The Cardinals answered with a 13-0 run, though, with Smith scoring seven of the last nine.
"Just keep fighting," Smith said of his thoughts when U of L trailed by 15. "The crowd's against us. ... I didn't want to go down by 20, and that's the way it was heading. The guys huddled together and we made a comeback, and we got the game within distance to potentially win."
Smith converted a four-point play — three-pointer plus a free throw — to finally pull U of L even at 40 with 15:23 left. UK scored the next seven points and was never headed.
"Their crowd is tremendous," Smith said. "We pushed and we just came up short. I really can't make no excuses."
Saturday marked U of L's second road game and final non-conference opponent. The Cards next visit Big East foe St. John's, Tuesday in Madison Square Garden.
"Everybody's upset. We actually wanted to win," Smith said. "We kind of let the city down. ... We just want to come out and take care of conference now that this game's over. As much as we wanted to win it, we know conference is much more important than this game."
Foul calls fair
Both teams were in foul trouble much of the game. U of L had 29 of the 52 fouls called, but the Cards had fewer free-throw attempts (27) than the Cats made (32-for-43).
Cards starters Chane Behanan and Peyton Siva both pointed to rebounds — 57-31 for UK — as the big difference.
"They called the game pretty much fair. ... I think it was a tight game on the foul calls," Behanan said. "But they just got the best of it on the boards."
"Definitely rebounding," Siva said of the key to the game. "Rebounding hurt us and killed us. And they knocked down foul shots."
Behanan played only 3:45 in the first half, exiting when he picked up an offensive foul and a technical for his second and third personals.
"I didn't throw the ball at (the official)," Behanan said. "Technically, I did throw it at him, but I just gave the ball hard and it bounced."
The freshman said his first Cards-Cats experience "was fun — until I got my technical. I felt that I was going to — not just me, but we were going to — have a good game."
Also citing rebounds as a key was U of L's 6-11 Gorgui Dieng. Averaging 10 a game, he finished with five, although limited because of foul troubles in the second half.
"We got dominated on the backboard, and I think we need to go back and work on that," the sophomore from Senegal said. "We didn't try to rebound as a team today. We just tried to look a lot, and I think that hurt us."
Pitino didn't consider Dieng the problem, though.
"I would attribute it to our small guards more than even with Gorgui," Pitino said.
"We didn't do a good job on the backboard with Gorgui out of the game. Gorgui is one thing, and then you are playing two 6-foot guards, and that doesn't help. Kyle (Kuric) didn't rebound, so we were really overmatched on the backboard tonight."
Behanan and Russ Smith also had five boards each. Siva, Kuric and Chris Smith combined for seven.
"We just need to rebound," Siva said. "The guards need to get back in there and hit the big men and help them out rebounding. Gorgui battled his heart out, and us guards need to stop standing around and go back and help him out."
■ U of L's 13-0 flurry late in the first half was the Cards' 16th run of eight or more points this season.
■ Kentucky leads the all-time series 29-14, including 20-10 since the series resumed in 1983.
■ U of L, which came into the day second in the Big East with 9.6 steals per game, got 12 Saturday, led by Russ Smith, Chris Smith and Jared Swopshire with three each.
■ Dieng, second in the Big East with 2.9 blocks per game, swatted six Saturday.
■ Kuric, who leads U of L with 25 three-pointers, went 0-for-2 from long range.