But so too did the Cardinals' lackadaisical defense.
One week after losing by 22 points to Charlotte in a less-than-impressive defensive effort, UofL was upended by Western Carolina 91-83. The Catamounts shot 51 percent and got 47 points from a pair of reserves to beat the Cards in front of 19,247 at Freedom Hall.
"We played hard tonight, but we're just not playing good basketball right now," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "Defensively, that has been our problem. We are letting teams shoot way too high of a percentage. It is really hurting us because we are not able to get stops. And when it was a four-point game we have to make our free throws to have a chance of winning...it's very disappointing.
"From Day One in practice reminds me of the team after the Final Four team (2005). The next year the guys thought they were the reason for the Final Four and they didn't play well defensively. It is almost a carbon copy of that. I don't think our guys realize why we won two (Big East) championships last year and why we went to the Elite Eight. It was because those three guys worked their butts off on defense. They are not recognizing that because every day we watch the practice film and it is not a good day at the defensive end."
Western Carolina (10-1), the preseason pick to win the Southern Conference's North Division and the No. 15 team in CollegeInsider.com's Mid-Major Top 25, won its ninth straight after a 73-41 loss at No. 2 Texas on Nov. 18. Mike Williams, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, scored 24 points off the bench, while fellow reserve Jake Robinson, a 6-8 senior forward, tallied 23 points on the strength of 6 of 11 shooting from three-point range. The pair came in averaging 9.4 and 11.3 points per game, respectively. The Catamounts made 26 of their 51 shots, including 10 of 27 (37 percent) from three-point range, while forcing 21 UofL turnovers (15 in the first half) and converting those into 28 points.
"We've got to get tougher," said Knowles, who scored 15 points in 35 minutes in his first game back from a sprained right thumb. "There were a lot of loose ball out there that we didn't come up with, and we didn't come up with against Charlotte either.
"We have to get back to last year...defense wins championships."
Added Sosa, who led Louisville with 16 points and seven assists, but also had seven turnovers: "(Defense) is something coach has been talking about since Day One. We're as good as anybody offensively, but that's not what wins games. Jared Swopshire added 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds for UofL (5-3), while sophomore center Samardo Samuels finished with 11 points and only two rebounds. Fellow sophomore big man Terrence Jennings added 11 points and six rebounds off the bench.
"I think I would have started TJ if he would have worked hard in practice, but he is not giving it in practice," said Pitino, whose team narrowly won the battle of the backboards, 35-34.
"Obviously we have to get more rebounding. We can't just stay on the rim, we have to get above the rim and grab the ball. We're rebounding like we're a point guard up front. We have skinny freshmen and sophomores grabbing rebounds. We need our big guys hitting the glass harder. They are struggling picking up the scouting report and doing the right thing."
Western Carolina, which came in 0-11 all-time against teams in the Big East, jumped out early, leading 21-11 with 8:08 left in the first half.
"Teams are coming in here and they're not afraid of the crowd, they're not afraid of the UofL uniform," Sosa said.
The Catamounts led 34-29 at halftime thanks to 50 percent (12 of 24) shooting and the fact that the Catamounts forced 15 turnovers and turned those into 20 points.
"I know we caught Louisville at a really good time," Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said. "They've got injuries. I talked to coach before the game and it's tough. It's really tough out there when you're hurt, playing people with bad wrists and those kinds of things. But they competed tonight. I thought both teams competed really well and we're not a bad basketball team. It's a really good road win for us and we're very grateful, but I certainly wish Rick and his team well too. They'll be fine when they get healthy and get people back in there."
Easily the loudest ovation of the first half came when new UofL football coach Charlie Strong and his family were introduced during the under 12-minute TV timeout.
The Cards clawed their way back early in the second half. UofL hit a trio of three-pointers - by Reginald Delk, Knowles and Sosa - against the team that came in ranked ninth nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense to give them their first lead since early in the game.
The two teams stayed close for the next 12 minutes. Rakeem Buckles' dunk with 5:33 to play pulled UofL within 66-63. But that was as close as the Cards would get the rest of the way. Robinson hit three three-pointers in a little over a minute as the Catamounts' cushion went from three to 10 (75-65). A steal and layup by junior forward Richie Gordon pushed that to 12, then after a Samuels' basket Williams had a conventional three-point play to push the lead to 13.
UofL next hosts Oral Roberts at 7:07 p.m. Wednesday night.
"We've got to recruit, we've got to keep working on the fundamentals of the game to improve," Pitino said. "We have to recruit. Our talent level is not where it needs to be right now. We need to get on the road and beat the bushes right now.
"But we are just not going to pay attention to the names or reputations. We are just going to play guys who want to work the hardest on defense, they are going to play. We are at that point where we have to improve and get better."