The Cardinals (22-7, 10-6 in the Big East), who are ranked No. 17 in both national polls, won the battle of attrition by making a couple of key plays late, and a few free throws too.
Energizer Bunny Russ Smith scored a game-high 18 points – including 11 straight Louisville points during the second half – as the Cards climbed into a tie for sixth-place in the Big East standings thanks to their win as well as South Florida's 46-45 victory over Cincinnati. Louisville hosts the Bulls (18-11-5), who are tied with Georgetown for fourth-place in the league, in its final home game Wednesday night.
Senior forward Kyle Kuric, who scored four points and went 0-for-11 from the field in the Cards' 60-56 loss to the Bearcats this past Thursday night bounced back with 17 points – including a huge 3-pointer late in the game – against the Panthers. Meanwhile junior point guard Peyton Siva scored 11 points and had five assists. Siva's two free throws with 4.1 seconds to play came before Pitt's Ashton Gibbs missed a potential game-tying, 30-foot 3-pointer at the final buzzer.
"We keep getting caught up in these slow-down, half-court games," said Pitino, whose team scored 25 points in the first half and 32 in the second. "But it's our fault because we're not pushing the pace."
When the Cards did try to force the issue, on the defensive end at least, they were effective. Louisville forced 19 Panther errors and was able to convert them into a 24-10 advantage in points off of turnovers.
"The press really helped us to pick up the tempo," Siva said.
"The turnovers are what really hurt us, and also the transition baskets, and foul trouble had a big effect on what we were able to do," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon added.
The Cards' D helped them overcome an early 8-3 deficit as they outscored Pitt 18-3 over a more than 9-minute stretch. Siva, Kuric and Smith scored five points apiece in that time frame (13:33 to 4:20) when the Panthers missed seven straight shots and committed three turnovers.
"When I scored was when we got out and ran," Russ Smith said. "I love running out on the break."
Thanks to Smith & Co. Louisville's five-point deficit turned into a 10-point lead.
Pitt, though, held the Cards to one field goal over the final 8:15 of the first half to pull within a point (25-24) by intermission.
The Panthers (15-14- 4-12) scored the first six points of the second half to open up a five-point lead. But Siva's driving, left-handed layup – UofL's first field goal in about 8 1/2 minutes – got the Cards back on track. Siva hit one free throw less than a minute later, then assisted a 3-pointer by Kuric to give Louisville the lead. The Panthers took it back a short time later.
Pitt led 38-35 with 12 minutes to play before Smith went on his roll.
He started it with a baseline jumper that rolled in, then followed that up with another successful jump shot on Louisville's next possession. After two free throws from J.J. Moore, the reserve Pitt forward who led the team with 16 points, Smith scored inside off an in-bounds play, then capped his personal run with a 3-pointer from the wing.
"I've never known what a nervous breakdown is, but coachimg him I feel like I almost have one daily," Pitino said of Smith. "He was going out of his mind. I have no idea what he does out there when he's on the court. We were running some side pick-and-rolls for him and the chances of him passing on a side pick-and-roll are not good. But he's the one guy who's fearless and let's face it he's won about four or five games for us this year."
Kuric followed up Smith's spurt with a fast-break layup and a technical foul free throw, after the Pitt bench protested too much that Kuric had walked on the laying.
Moore then hit 1 of 2 free throws, but Chane Behanan followed with a rebound basket to give UofL an eight-point lead (49-41) with 7:31 to play.
The Panthers scored seven of the next eight points and had a chance to tie the game, or take the lead, when Dante Taylor missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with four minutes remaining.
The Cards worked the ball around on their next possession before Kuric hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key just before the shot clock expired to give Louisville a five-point lead (53-48) with 3:25 left.
"He's a big shot-maker when the game is on the line," Pitino said. That was Louisville's final field goal, though.
Gorgui Dieng, who Pitino said "for the first game this year he was out of it," missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with Louisville leading by three with 41.9 seconds to go. After a Taylor dunk Behanan did the same thing as Dieng to give Pitt the ball back. However Tray Woodall's quick shot came up short and Behanan snared it, then was fouled.
With 13.2 seconds to play Behanan hit both free throws for the Cards, who were then in the double bonus.
"I just took my time," said the freshman forward who came into the game shooting 60.3 percent from the foul line.
Woodall's layup with five seconds left trimmed Louisville's lead back to one, but Siva made his two subsequent free throws and Gibbs missed his last-second shot attempt.
The Cards, who beat Pitt despite shooting 38.6 percent (17 for 44) from the field and being out-rebounded 38-25, host USF at 7 p.m. Wednesday in what Pitino hopes will be a higher-scoring game.
"We have to press more," the UofL coach said. "That won the game for us tonight."
"Play fast we need to get back doing that," said Chris Smith, who along with Kuric will play his final home game for the Cards that night. "We need to pick up the pace and get everybody involved."