Cincinnati shocked the Cardinals 58-57 on the first day of 2008 in front of 19,488 fans at Freedom Hall. It was UofL's third straight conference-opening loss in the last three seasons.
To make matters worse, the Bearcats also ruined the return of senior center David Padgett.
Tuesday against Cincinnati.
"It was a very disappointing loss for us, especially our defense down the stretch was a killer," said UofL coach Rick Pitino, whose team lost its Big East opening-game at Notre Dame last season and lost to Villanova in its first conference game the previous season.
The Cards (9-4, 0-1) had a chance to win in the final seconds, but Edgar Sosa's jumper was short and Terrence Williams' reverse put-back attempt hit the rim and bounced off as time expired.
"We were supposed to drive left of the basket…we wanted to get Jerry Smith open and instead we went right and took a bad shot," Pitino said.
"I was supposed to go to the left, but in the flow of the game I followed my instincts and went right," Sosa said. "I knew the shot was off as soon as it left my hand, I rushed it."
Deonta Vaughn and John Williamson scored 13 points apiece to lead the Bearcats (6-7, 1-0), who had lost five straight games before their win over Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 29.
"It is a huge win, but you know after all I have been through since I have come home, whoever we beat was going to be irrelevant," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who was an assistant coach for Pitino at UofL from 2001-03, then the head coach at Murray State before returning to his alma mater in 2006.
"We needed to win the first Big East game. Obviously (it's big) when you get a win against a high-quality coach, you gotta understand I am their biggest fan. I don't miss a game, they are all on ESPN FullCourt. I have to watch them from a different angle when I am preparing for them because I am not rooting for them. It is a tremendous win for our program."
Vaughn scored 11 of Cincinnati's final 15 points – nine of which came on three-pointers - over the last 8:57. Marvin Gentry added 10 points for the Bearcats, who shot 46.9 percent (23 of 49) from the field and made 8 of 14 (57.1 percent) three-point shots.
Smith led Louisville with 17 points on 6 of 10 shooting and also grabbed six rebounds and recorded four steals. Padgett, in his first game back since suffering a broken right kneecap in UofL's second game of the season, added 13 points off the bench. Williams added nine points – on just 2 of 13 shooting – and 11 rebounds. Sophomore forward Earl Clark scored only four points – well below his 12.5 average – on 1 of 7 shooting. The Cards shot just 35.6 percent (21 of 59) from the field and made only 3 of 23 (13 percent) from three-point range.
UofL wasn't helped by the fact that one of its better shooters, Will Scott, missed the game with a stomach virus. But the Cards did get a big boost from Padgett, who played early and often for Derrick Caracter. Caracter, UofL's leading scorer coming in at 12.9 points per game, had more turnovers (three) than points (two) in 14 minutes.
"We had no choice, we had to play to win," Pitino said. "You can't turn the ball over against these guys. DC was just turning it over too much and wasn't getting us the assists."
Padgett didn't start, but he checked into the game at the 18:05 mark during a timeout. He came in to a near standing ovation and Louisville losing 4-0, but Padgett's presence seemed to energize UofL. The Cards reeled off eight straight points – five by Jerry Smith. UofL increased its lead to five (14-9) before the Bearcats battled back.
Cincinnati scored six straight points to retake the lead, then later went on an 8-1 spurt to take its largest lead of the first half 25-19.
The Cards clawed back to within in on Padgett's turnaround hook off the glass with 49 seconds left ini the half, but Gentry's three-pointer in the final seconds gave the Bearcats a 30-26 halftime lead.
Cincinnati hit 50 percent (12 of 24) from the field in the first half, including 4 of 8 from three-point range. The Cards, by contrast, shot just 39.3 percent (11 of 28) from the field, including just 2 of 11 (18.2 percent) from three-point range.
"We got the shots we wanted to most of the time, they just weren't going down," Sosa said. Smith led UofL with 10 points and three steals, while Gentry had eight off the bench to lead the Bearcats.
Cincinnati increased its lead to 36-30 early in the second half before a 12-2 Cards' spurt. Smith's two free throws gave UofL a 42-38 lead with 12:22 to play. Sosa's three almost two minutes later increased the Cards' lead to 46-41, but Cincinnati wouldn't succumb.
The Bearcats scored five straight to tie the score, and the game stayed tight until the end. Vaughn's three with 3:21 to play gave Cincinnati a 56-54 lead. T-Will hit 1 of 2 free throws, then Padgett scored inside as the Cards went ahead 57-56.
Vaughn's two free throws with 1:14 remaining were the final points. After T-Will missed a jumper on UofL's next possession the Bearcats had a chance to add to their lead, but Vaughn lost the ball and UofL called a timeout with 4.8 seconds to play.
"(Sosa) didn't run the play and that was my fault for putting him in that situation," Pitino said. "It's more time on the clock than you think. A mistake was made, we should have pushed the ball on the missed shot and I don't like timeouts in that situation. Push it, drive it, dish it and usually something good happens. Instead we drove it and brought it back to halfcourt, and that was a mistake."
The Cards travel to archrival Kentucky at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"We just have to bounce back and get back to working hard in practice," Padgett said.