The Bulls ruined the Cardinals' farewell to their three seniors, and UofL's final home game of the season, with a 58-51 victory Wednesday night at the KFC Yum! Center.
USF, which greatly helped its NCAA Tournament chances, held Louisville to a season-low point total and to 34 percent shooting in its first win over the Cards in 14 years.
"It was a tough loss on Senior Night," said UofL coach Rick Pitino, whose team lost for the first time on Senior Night in his tenure. "They were the better basketball team tonight in that style. They're bigger, strong; you've got to give them credit. They've been waiting a long time to get into the (NCAA) tournament."
The loss assured Louisville, No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25, for a seventh-place finish in the Big East. The Cards (22-8, 10-7) close out their regular season at 4 p.m. Saturday at second-ranked Syracuse.
Seniors Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric, who along with Jared Swopshire were recognized before the game, scored 14 points apiece to lead. Those two combined to go 10 for 20 from the field, while the rest of the team was just 8 for 33 (24.2 percent) – including sophomore Russ Smith, who was 0 for 8 - as the Cards got caught up in the Bulls' plodding pace.
"In these slow-down games every possession is fundamentals," Pitino said. "They had guys who made shots and we had guys, other than Chris Smith, who didn't make shots. It's always been that way if you have shooters on the perimeter they knock down shots. If you don't have shooters on the perimeter it's going to be difficult to make shots. Russ Smith is good in a wide-open game. He's not a good spot-up shooter or 3-point shooter. If it's a fast game you play Russ, if it's not you play Angel (Nunez)."
The pace of Wednesday night's game was slow from the get-go. Neither team scored in the first 2 minutes and 2 seconds before Anthony Collins' steal and layup gave USF (19-11, 12-5) a 2-0 lead.
That set the tone for a not-so-pretty first half.
The Bulls built a 14-7 lead before Louisville scored eight straight points – on two free throws from Russ Smith, jump shots by Peyton Siva and Kuric and a layup by Chane Behanan – for a 1-point advantage at the 7:05 mark.
However, South Florida held UofL to just one field goal for the rest of the half to lead 22-17 at intermission. The Cards shot just 26.9 percent (7 for 26) in the first 20 minutes.
Compared to the first half the second half was a shootout. UofL outscored the Bulls 13-6 in the first five minutes, tying the game at 30-all on Chris Smith's 3-pointer – his first points of the game.
Gorgui Dieng hit 1 of 2 free throws, then Smith hit his second 3 go give Louisville a 34-30 lead.
The two teams traded baskets by Toarlyn Fitzpatrick scored five straight points with a 3-pointer and a dunk. Smith hit his third 3 of the half to give Louisville the lead back, then hit two free throws after Jawanza Poland had tied it with a jumper. However Fitzpatrick's tip-in tied it again, at 41-all, with 8:26 to play. Nearly three minutes later Augustus Gilchrist's jumper gave USF the lead for good.
Poland's 3 with 3:05 remaining pushed the Bulls' lead to 48-42 before a three-point play by Smith cut the Cards' deficit in half. UofL had a chance to pull closer, but Behanan missed a dunk (one of three on the night for the Cards) on the heels of a steal. Some controversy came late when USF was given a timeout with 1:22 to play even though it appeared that the basketball was loose on the court at the time of the official's whistle.
"It was a bad call," Pitino said afterward. "There were a lot of bad calls in the game. Nobody says we were going to win the game, but it definitely was a poor call. (I told him), ‘Just ask the other two officials, they saw the play, ask them for help.' The ref heard the coach call a timeout, so he blew the whistle. Just ask the other two guys, it was a complete loose ball, nobody had possession."
The call that had red-clad fans and Pitino seeing red became even bigger when Poland hit a jumper on the ensuing in-bounds play to give the Bulls a 50-45 cushion.
USF then sealed the biggest win in the history of its program - "I think so," Bulls coach Stan Heath said afterward. "On the road against Louisville with so much on the line. I don't know history that well, but I know for me personally, it is." – by making 8 of 10 free throws in the final 49 seconds.
"You're not going to get them to play fast, nobody has been able to. We did everything we could, except we didn't rebound," Pitino said.
The Cards were beaten 40-29 on the backboards in their final home game.
"Whether it was the last game or not, we lost, it's tough regardless," Kuric said.
Louisville plays Syracuse at 4 p.m. Saturday in a nationally-televised game before beginning the Big East Tournament next week.