Sparked by their scrapping and clawing defense the Cardinals outscored the Cougars 12-3 over the final 3 minutes, 12 seconds for a 69-62 Tuesday night in front of 20,752 at the KFC Yum! Center.
"We pulled another one out," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "There are no moral victories and I know (College of Charleston coach) Bobby (Cremins)'s team outplayed us tonight. We just showed tremendous fortitude down the stretch to win."
UofL's 11th straight win to start the season was led by the dogged defense of Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Chris Smith late in the game.
"Down the stretch our adrenaline is running so high we're like starving dogs," Chris Smith said.
And in this case the Cards' bite was just as bad, if not worse, than their bark.
"Their pressure finally caught up to us down the stretch," said Cremins, whose team had five of its 22 turnovers in the final 5:39. "Coach Pitino is a great coach and they are just relentless. Their pressure is just relentless."
Senior forward Kyle Kuric, who hit the go-ahead basket after being moved to power forward, scored a team-high 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds and recorded three steals. Meanwhile sophomore center Gorgui Dieng notched his fourth straight double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds to go along with his five blocked shots. Freshman forward Chane Behanan added 12 points and eight rebounds, while sophomore sparkplug Russ Smith scored 12 points and tallied five steals for UofL (11-0), which is ranked No. 4 in both national polls.
"Pretty much in the second half we had to turn the game around on the defensive end," said Chris Smith, who finished with 11 points and four assists.
For about the first 32 minutes, though, it was beginning to look a lot like last year's game against Drexel. In that one, which was also a 9 p.m. start on Dec. 14, 2010, the Dragons handed UofL its first loss in its new arena. Drexel, which like the College of Charleston entered with one loss, dominated that game via the backboards. Tuesday night the Cougars (9-2) built an 8-point second half lead thanks to torrid three-point shooting.
The College of Charleston, which came in averaging 9.5 made threes per game but shooting only 26.8 percent behind the arc, hit 7 of its 13 three-point tries in the first half to lead Louisville 37-33 at intermission.
The Cougars picked up where they left off in the second half. Jordan Scott's three-pointer with 17:07 to play gave the College of Charleston a 46-38 lead. The Cougars still led by eight two minutes later before the Cards began their comeback.
Rakeem Buckles began a 7-1 spurt by UofL with a layup. Russ Smith followed with one of his own, then after one College of Charleston free throw, the reigning Big East Player of the Week nailed a three to trim the Cougars' lead to two.
A huge one-hand dunk by Dieng pulled Louisville within one, before Behanan's steal and dunk moments later put UofL ahead 53-52 with 8:25 to play.
Charleston's Anthony Stitt answered with (surprise!) a three-pointer before a jumper by Kuric tied it with 5:30 left.
The Cougars took the lead back with a pair of free throws before Russ Smith tied it again with a steal and two-hand slam. Kuric hit one free throw, then Antwaine Wiggins hit a pair to give Charleston its last lead.
Dieng missed on UofL's next possession, but Charleston's Matt Sundberg missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to give the ball back to the Cards. On their ensuing possession Kuric, who Pitino moved to the power forward position at the urging of his son (associate head coach Richard), caught the ball at the free throw line, turned and connected on a jumper.
"I give credit to my son, he made the move of the game," Pitino said. "He told me to play Kyle in the four (power forward) slot because the middle was wide open and they weren't playing it. He said, ‘Put Kyle in there he'll make the shot or something good will happen.' And he got in there and really bothered them. Where Rakeem and Chane were a little uncertain of what to do, Kyle made it and it was a brilliant move on Richard's part."
Charleston missed its next shot and the Cards quickly pushed the ball into the frontcourt, where Russ Smith knocked down a three.
"That's the rule, if you're open shoot it," said the hero of last Saturday's victory over Memphis who finished 5 for 10 from the field and 2 of 5 from three-point range.
After two more misses by the Cougars, Chris Smith then knocked down another three as the Cards' lead climbed to seven (66-59) with 2:02 to play. Wiggins, who scored a game-high 23 points, answered with a three-pointer of his own, but after a turnover by Kuric then a steal and missed free throw by Russ Smith, the Cougars had another miscue of their own.
"They are just a real scrappy team," Wiggins said. "It's a very tough team to play, especially when there is a crowd here. They played with that crowd, and whenever that crowd got loud is when they went on their run."
Dieng hit a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left, then Siva added another with 17 seconds to play to seal it. Led by Dieng the Cards outscored the Cougars 36-10 in the paint, while led by Russ Smith UofL notched 15 steals.
"Gorgui and Russ Smith played like men possessed," Pitino said.
UofL next hosts Western Kentucky (4-8) at 7 p.m. Friday night in the Billy Minardi Classic.
"I have seen a lot of teams play hard, but that was overboard. So I told our guys, ‘Now you know we have a lot to work on.' Just because we are not the greatest shooting team we have to be the best ball movement team," said Pitino, whose team shot 43.5 percent (27 of 62) for the game, including 36.4 percent (8 for 22) from three-point range. "Preston Knowles is not walking through that door anymore, we've got to be better against the zone."