"If we would've lost we would've packed our bags and went right to the NIT...today was a great win for us," Sosa said after his team's much-needed 68-60 victory in front of 19,617 fans Freedom Hall. "This game puts all of us back in good spirits."
Led by Sosa, Samardo Samuels, Reginald Delk and Peyton Siva, and ignited by a lineup switch and its coach, UofL (13-7, 4-3) ended its three-game losing streak with a big Big East Conference win over the Bearcats (13-7, 4-4) to build its case for an NCAA Tournament bid.
"It was a great defensive effort for our guys because they're a terrific defensive team," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "We did some smart things on offense, really smart, looking inside to out. Tonight, it was the smartest we'd been offensively."
The Cards' offense, and defense, were helped by Pitino's insertion of 6-foot-10 sophomore Terrence Jennings into the starting lineup alongside Samuels.
"I wanted to use it all summer, but the reason I didn't use it was TJ's fault," Pitino said. "Everybody has to own it and the reason was his fault. But a week ago I told him we were going to do it and he picked up his intensity. We've got to get better at it. There are a lot of weaknesses because (Jennings) doesn't know certain things we do, but we're going to stick with it now and just get better at it. We can always substitute the other way. But I'm not going to change after a victory, no matter what West Virginia does."
Jennings scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes of action, but it was Delk who caught UC off guard.
"Terrence Jennings played hard, but he didn't kill us," said Cincinnati coach, and former UofL assistant, Mick Cronin. "Reggie Delk's the guy that really hurt us...a double-double obviously killed us."
Delk scored 13 points, making 5 of 6 shots, and grabbed a career-high, and game-high, 11 rebounds.
"In front of the team before the game I said, ‘Reg, you're a very good shooter and your numbers are terrific but against Seton Hall you had no assists, no steals, no turnovers and no rebounds in 20 minutes.' I said, ‘You can't impersonate a mannequin in Macy's window outside of shooting. I was hoping he knew what a mannequin was because they don't have a lot of stores where he's from. But I'm sure he did and today he got 11 rebounds and did a great job."
With more attention on Samuels and Jennings, Delk was able to slip to the glass.
"The big lineup was very effective today," he said. "(After close losses to) Pittsburgh and Villanova we didn't want that to happen again. We're learning."
Nothing was effective early for the Cards, though, as they were blitzed by the Bearcats. Lance Stephenson's three-pointer six minutes and two seconds into the game gave UC a 15-4 lead. The freshman forward had 12 of Cincy's first 15 points, but those were also his only points of the game.
"Their defensive energy, after we got up 11 on them, they turned up the heat," Cronin said. With its dogged defense UofL slowly chipped away at the Bearcats' lead. Back-to-back threes by Delk and Peyton Siva near the midway point of the half trimmed UC's lead from 11 points to five. Later Louisville's 8-0 run - that began on a two-handed rebound dunk by Delk - cut Cincinnati's lead to one (23-22).
The Cards tied the game on Sosa's three-pointer 1:41 before halftime, then took their first lead moments later on two free throws - during which Pitino raised his arms to exhort the home crowd to cheer louder - by Jennings.
Louisville led 31-30 at halftime in spite of 37.9 percent shooting (11 for 29), but thanks to having only three turnovers.
The Cards kept their lead the entire second half, but it wasn't without some resistance by the Bearcats.
UC cut UofL's lead to two (40-38) on Jaquon Parker's three-pointer 5:32 into the second half, but the Cards responded with eight straight points - three apiece by Delk and Siva.
Then with 6:40 to play Cincy again cut Louisville's lead to two (54-52) once on Cashmere Wright's three. But the Cards answered with a 7-0 spurt that began with a three-pointer by Delk and was followed by a turnaround by Samuels and two free throws by Sosa.
Sosa shook off his recent late-game struggles and hit a big three-pointer, after a UC defender went for his shot fake, with 2:02 to play to push Louisville's lead from four to seven (64-57).
"I knew my man would go for the fake and he flew by," said Sosa, who along with Samuels led UofL with 14 points.
Siva added 10 points, three assists and three steals in only 12 minutes for the Cards, who 52.2 percent (12 of 23) from the field and made 9 of 11 free throws in the second half. For the game UofL was 15 of 19 (78.9 percent) from the foul line, while the Bearcats were 4-for-4.
Yancy Gates, Deonta Vaughn, Wright and Sephenson all finished with 12 points to pace the Bearcats, who shot 43.4 percent (23 for 53) from the field and outrebouned Louisville 34-27.
UofL next travels to 11th-ranked West Virginia at noon Saturday.
"Now we've got to go 7-for-11," Pitino said of his team‘s remaining games. "With each Big East victory it gets more and more positive, so we're very excited about this win."