No. 20 Louisville held Pittsburgh scoreless during a crucial 4:54 stretch late in the second half on its way to a 69-63 victory against the previously unbeaten Panthers Saturday night at Freedom Hall.
Pitt junior guard Jermaine Dixon's free throw with 5:12 remaining gave Pitt a 58-54 advantage, but the Panthers didn't score again until senior forward Tyrell Biggs knocked down two free throws with 18 seconds left and the team down, 64-60. Louisville (13-3, 4-0 Big East) hit the free throws it needed late to clinch the victory.
"We learn from our 16 wins, (and) we've got to learn from our one loss,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I think we will. That's something that we've done, (and) that's something that's been a trademark of our team.''
The deciding factor, according to Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was the Cardinals' smothering full-court pressure defense.
"I'm real proud of our guys, 'cause (Pitt's) a great basketball team, real deserving of their ranking,'' Pitino said.
The Cardinals forced 20 Pitt turnovers, including a season-high six from Panthers senior point guard Levance Fields, who was coming off a 13-assist, one-turnover performance Wednesday against South Florida.
"Our press was the key to the game, because we were able to wear people out,' Pitino said. "We felt we had to turn them over. We were bringing everybody up into the backcourt. We were playing more of a trapping defense than a fatigue defense.''
While Dixon believed Pitt's turnovers primarily were in the frontcourt and not necessarily forced by the pressure, the miscues were crucial nonetheless.
"We turned it over too many for us,'' Dixon said. "When you're pressed for the whole game you're going to have some turnovers. The ones we can take care of are some decisions in the frontcourt.''
Terrence Williams paced the Cardinals with 20 points, while Earl Clark added 16 points and 11 rebounds on his 21st birthday. Freshman sensation Samardo Samuels tallied 10 points and seven rebounds.
Jermaine Dixon led all Pitt scorers with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting, but Pitt (16-1, 4-1 Big East) struggled mightily from the field all game long. The team shot 35 percent from the field, aided by a 6-of-20 performance from senior forward Sam Young and a 3-of-14 effort from Fields.
Young finished with 14 points, while sophomore DeJuan Blair had nine points and 10 rebounds. Young played just 11 minutes and Blair 10 in the first half due to foul trouble. Both eventually fouled out.
"We obviously had to battle through some foul difficulties,'' Jamie Dixon said. "We talked about staying out of foul trouble, and really that was the difference.''
The Panthers jumped out to a quick 9-2 lead behind consecutive 3-pointers from Biggs (two) and Young.
But Pitt's normally tenacious rebounding abandoned ship in the ensuing possessions. The Cardinals tipped numerous missed shots back to their guards, creating more scoring opportunities that brought them back in the game.
Turnovers and fouls followed suit in abundance, and two free throws from Samuels with 6:19 left capped a 17-3 Louisville run to build a 24-23 lead.
Young and Blair both picked up their second fouls in this time span, and neither played for the remainder of the half.
"I thought we were in pretty good shape,'' Jamie Dixon said. "Obviously, no one wants to be in the kind of foul trouble that we were, but we battled through it, still had an eight-point lead in the second half.''
With many of the reserves in, the Panthers managed to hang close as the half wound down, and a crucial 3-pointer by freshman guard Ashton Gibbs pushed the lead back to Pitt at the intermission, 32-30.
The Cardinals quickly regained the lead at the onset of the second half, as Williams knocked down a 3-pointer for a 35-34 edge. But Pitt fought back with a 7-0 run to open up a 41-35 advantage, its largest since Louisville's massive run altered the momentum.
Young appeared to take control of the game on back-to-back possessions, with a 3-pointer followed by a steal and a breakaway windmill dunk after a steal. Jermaine Dixon drove for a lay-up the next time down the floor, and all of a sudden Pitt led, 55-45.
But Blair picked up his fourth foul with 8:04 remaining and headed to the bench. The Cardinals capitalized, scoring nine consecutive points while Pitt whiffed on some open opportunities. A dunk by Clark cut Pitt's lead to 55-54.
Three free throws by Jermaine Dixon pushed the Panthers lead to four, but the Cardinals scored four straight to tie the game, 58-58, setting the stage for the climactic final minutes.
The loss means Pitt likely will fall slightly in the national polls, as both No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Wake Forest won their respective contests. Wake Forest beat Clemson and now is the nation's only undefeated team. Duke beat Georgetown.
Pitt plays at home against Syracuse Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN's Big Monday.
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