The University of Louisville outscored Western Kentucky 22-3 over a nine-minute second-half stretch, after the Hilltoppers had taken an eight-point lead, on its way to a 70-60 victory Friday night in the Billy Minardi Classic in front of 22,150 at the KFC Yum! Center.
"We had to light the fires at the end of the game again," said senior guard Chris Smith, whose team made a previous charge in its victory over the College of Charleston on Tuesday night.
Sophomore guard Russ Smith scored 13 of his game-high 23 points during that stretch to lift Louisville, which is ranked fourth in both national polls, to its 12th straight victory to start the season.
"Russ has a knack for scoring and it's hard to stop a player like Russ once he gets going," Chris Smith said of Russ Smith, who is averaging 17.8 points over the last four games.
Kyle Kuric added 15 polnts and sophomore center Gorgui Dieng recorded his fifth straight double-double (13 points and 15 rebounds) for the Cardinals, who had to come back from a 13-point deficit in the first half and that eight-point hole in the second half.
"We didn't play good basketball tonight. We haven't been playing good basketball the last three games, but we are giving unbelievable effort to win," said UofL coach Rick Pitino, who appeared none-to-pleased with the victory in his post-game press conference. "You have to give all the credit to Western Kentucky…They were 4-8 (coming in), but they played like an 8-4 team."
The Hilltoppers (4-9), who started four freshmen and a junior and came in off a 13-point home loss to Furman, raced out to an early lead on Louisville, which has now won 20 straight games at home. Western came in among the worst teams in the country in turnovers (more than 18 per game), but it was the Cards who were in a giving mood. UofL committed seven turnovers in the first 10 minutes. The last of those led to a dunk by George Fant gave the Hilltoppers a 22-9 lead with 9:57 left in the first half.
Kuric's dunk, off a backdoor pass from Russ Smith, ignited the Cards, who scored 10 of the next 12 points. Kuric's four-point play – after he was fouled while making a three-pointer – pulled UofL to within 24-19.
However Kevin Kaspar came off the WKU bench and promptly hit back-to-back three-pointers to push the Hilltoppers' lead back to 11, at 30-19.
Louisville answered, though, with a 14-2 run that Kuric capped with another corner three-pointer to give the Cards a 33-32 lead with 2:39 to play in the half.
"That really hurt," said Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald, who is rumored to be in jeopardy of losing his job. "You could feel the energy in the building shift and that can tip in a hurry the way Louisville plays."
Louisville-native Jamal Crook responded with a jumper before Rakeem Buckles was credited with a basket off a goal-tending call and Dieng made a nifty up-and-under move to give UofL a 37-34 lead at halftime.
Western, which was picked to finish third in the Sun Belt Conference's East Division in the preseason, started the second half like they began the first half. The Hilltoppers outscored the Cards 13-2 over the first eight minutes. Fant's inside hoop at the 12:10 mark gave Western a 47-39 lead.
But that's when the Cards' comeback began. It started with Russ Smith's drive and layup with 11:25 to play. Crook then hit 1 of 2 free throws before Smith hit two of his own, then Dieng followed up a Smith miss with an emphatic rebound-dunk. Smith hit a floater on Louisville's next possession as the Cards pulled to within one, 48-47.
Crook jumper pushed the Hilltoppers' lead back up to three, 50-47. But it was only a matter of time. Buckles' two free throws at the 7:58 mark began a 14-0 run by UofL. Smith knocked down a corner three to give the lead back to Louisville before his steal led to his own layup.
"I think our defensive intensity really picked up," junior point guard Peyton Siva said.
Western had six of its 18 turnovers during the Cards' game-clinching run.
Crook's layup with 2:21 to play ended a field goal drought of 6:26 for the Hilltoppers. The Cards then closed Western out at the free throw line.
UofL shot just 40 percent (22 for 55), including 31.3 percent from three-point range, from the field but made 21 of 30 (70 percent) free throws. Meanwhile the Hilltoppers shot 44.2 percent (23 for 52) from the field, including 40 percent (6 of 15) from three-point range, but was only 8 of 17 (47.1 percent) from the foul line.
"We feel like we could've won by more, but it's a good lesson for us," Chris Smith said. "If we play like this against Georgetown we'll get killed."
The Cards open Big East play against the aforementioned Hoyas (10-1), which is ranked 16th in both national polls, at 7 p.m. Wednesday night at the KFC Yum! Center.
"We will take off and come back ready to work and get ready for Georgetown," Pitino said.