Then, with 2:30 left before the break, Samardo Samuels took an elbow to the mouth, lost a couple teeth and was taken to a New York hospital to get medical attention.
"He got one completely knocked out and the other is just dangling," Rick Pitino said on his post-game radio show. "We're hoping to save one tooth. Obviously any time you get your teeth knocked out it bothers you. He'll wear a mouth-piece from this point on."
After going scoreless in the Cardinals last outing against UConn, Samuels was putting together a solid effort against St. John's before his injury. Besides his nine points, Samuels also blocked three shots in 15 first half minutes.
Earlier this week, Pitino had toyed with the idea of inserting freshman Terrence Jennings into Samuels starting spot at center. Instead, Samuels responded with a strong week of practice and made his 22nd start of the season. Samuels has started every game this season.
"I thought Samardo was going to have a great game (today). He played two great days of practice," said Pitino. "I was going to start TJ and then Samardo just dominated him. Most guys would sulk. He didn't sulk and just whipped him into oblivion and dominated him in practice. I thought he was going to have a big (game) because he was ducking in and being strong."
Though Samuels had his offensive game early, Louisville struggled to get going in the first half. For the game, Louisville made only 38.5 percent from the floor, including just 3-17 from beyond the three-point line.
"With him out we don't have a low-post presence and we had to make shots and it was very difficult for us early on," said Pitino. "We go into these offensive draughts and it hurts us a little bit. We were playing a bad tempo, playing great defense but giving up second shots. I think we gave up 12 at halftime."
Down 36-34 with 9:36 remaining in the game, Jerry Smith hit a three to give Louisville the lead for good. Smith, benched in favor of Preston Knowles, scored 16 of Louisville's last 20 points and made all nine free throw attempts down the stretch to preserve the Cardinals ninth league win.
"Jerry learned the most valuable lesson," Pitino said. "The last time (he) didn't start against Western Kentucky – even though we preach all the time it's who finishes I think is the best basketball player – and (he) finished the game off and won the game for us. That's what team work and basketball is all about."
Smith scored 19 of his game-high 21 in the second half.
"He played very aggressively," Pitino said. "Jerry was just going along and coasting and not doing the things athletically that he was capable of doing. Now he's not a T-Will athlete but he's capable of rebounding and getting fouled."
Smith also grabbed four rebounds and made two steals in 24 minutes. Knowles, Smith's replacement in the starting lineup against St. John's, played 16 minutes and scored only two points on 1 of 5 shooting from the field.
"He's doing one thing the other guys aren't doing, he's going back door all the time and mixing his game up with jump shots and back doors," Pitino said. "I think Jerry learned an extremely good lesson tonight."
Louisville returns to action Thursday night at Notre Dame. Samuels' status for the contest against the Irish is uncertain. The Cardinals beat Notre Dame in overtime 87-73 on Jan. 12 at Freedom Hall. Louisville has won 10 of their last 11 games heading into Thursday's game in South Bend.