Two weeks after being named the No. 1 team in the country, Louisville appeared to be on its way to a fourth straight defeat.
The Cardinals were minus two key players Monday night, had two walk-ons playing in the game at the same time in the first half, and for much of the game were being beaten on the backboards by Pittsburgh.
But the Cardinals kept battling.
Louisville built a 12-point lead early and then down the stretch did some things they haven’t been doing -- such as make free throws -- to survive with a 64-61 victory before 22,411 fans and end a three-game losing skid.
Louisville (17-4 overall, 5-3 Big East) dropped a home game to Syracuse just five days after getting the No. 1 ranking and then lost on the road last week at Villanova and Georgetown.
Pitt (17-5, 5-4) entered Monday's game having won four straight in the Big East after a 1-3 start.
”We needed that,” Louisville senior point guard Peyton Siva said of Monday's win. “You definitely feel pressure when you lose three straight, but I think as a team we came together and we played tough tonight. It was good to get the win.
”This just shows that we are capable of getting the job done.”
The Cardinals still didn’t look sharp on the offensive end for much of the game, but Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng led the way, combining for 34 points and hitting four of the late free throws.
Dieng finished with his fifth double-double this season, picking up 14 points, 12 rebounds, five blocked shots and four assists. He was 5 of 7 from the field and 4 of 6 on free throws, including two with 12 seconds left.
Gorgui Dieng had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Cardinals in Monday's win.
”That’s a good win for us,” Dieng said. “We talked about going into the game that we needed to play loose and play our game. I think this will help us going forward with our confidence. Pitt’s a good team.”
Smith, who had just 20 points combined in the last two games, was 7 of 15 from the field and finished with 20 points and five rebounds. Smith hit a pair of free throws with four seconds left in the clock to give Louisville a comfortable six-point lead.
Chane Behanan, a combined 6 of 15 from the free-throw line in the losses to Villanova and Georgetown last week, had 12 points and five rebounds and added two free throws with 24 seconds left for the Cardinals.
For the game, Louisville was 13 of 17 from the free-throw line. Pitt was just 3 of 12.
It was a good thing the Cardinals made those free throws.
Tray Woodall made two deep three-pointers in the final 13 seconds for the Panthers, including one at the buzzer to cut the final deficit to three.
”I can make free throws,” Behanan said with a smile. “We really needed them. If we had made them in some other games, it might have been different.”
The Cardinals were just glad this one was a victory, even without a basket for the final 4:34 of the game. Louisville allowed seven three-pointers in the final 13:18 -- the Panthers were 8 of 18 for the game.
”We played a really good game tonight, made our free throws,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We did a lot of good things. ... I thought all of the guys looked for each other, did a lot of good things.”
MORE ON THE GAME
Check out video interviews from the locker room after Louisville's win over Pitt.
And the Cardinals did it shorthanded. Starting forward Wayne Blackshear injured his shoulder on Sunday in practice, while backup guard Kevin Ware is suspended indefinitely. Pitino said Blackshear had what is equivalent of a “mild sprained ankle, but it’s his shooting arm.”
It’s uncertain when Ware, a sophomore averaging 15.8 minutes a game and 3.8 points, will return to the team. He wasn’t even on the bench.
”I’m really not worried about that right now,” Pitino said.
Pitino did have some crazy lineups at times, including several times late in the first half when walk-ons Tim Henderson and Michael Baffour -- who had a combined 52 total minutes played this season before Monday -- were on the floor.
Luke Hancock and Russ Smith each had two early fouls, necessitating the shuffling. The Cardinals did force a shot-clock violation and got two other stops with the seldom-used players on the court.
”It was scary,” Pitino said. “When Dark Slime (Baffour) goes into the game, it’s scary.”