Pittsburgh hoped the return of point guard Tray Woodall and a raucous home crowd would help them finally snap their nearly monthlong losing streak and earn their first Big East win of the season.
But after Saturday night's 73-62 loss to No. 23 Louisville, the Panthers' eighth in a row, they found themselves in a familiar and unwelcome spot - returning to practice searching for a cure to their struggles.
Ashton Gibbs and Lamar Patterson led Pitt (11-9, 0-7 Big East) with 14 points each but the defending Big East champions remained the only winless team in conference play. Kyle Kuric scored 21 points in his return from an ankle injury and Chane Behanan added a career-high 19 points for the Cardinals (15-5, 3-4 Big East), who took control during an 11-2 run midway through the second half.
The Panthers hoped the return of Woodall, who missed 11 of the last 12 games with groin and abdominal injuries, would end the program's longest losing streak in more than a decade. Instead, Woodall went scoreless in 21 minutes and Pitt's miserable stretch continued.
"It's definitely tough," Gibbs said, "but at the same time, we have to continue to keep our heads up. If you want to win a game, you can't win a game and not be mentally there."
The Panthers haven't won since beating St. Francis (Pa.) on Dec. 20.
Pitt led early 13-7, but the Cardinals turned that into a 31-28 halftime lead, with Kuric displaying the kind of clutch shotmaking that make him arguably the Big East's most improved player as a junior. Pitt never led over the game's final 26 minutes, with its best chance of making a game of it coming when Dante Taylor's dunk drew the Panthers within 45-41 with 13:04 to play.
Then, the turnover problems that have plagued the Panthers all season returned. Louisville scored 11 of the game's next 13 points, six coming off Pitt giveaways. By the time Russ Smith buried a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Cardinals up 56-43, the packed house at the Petersen Events Center started to thin out.
Gibbs said those problems were nothing new during this streak.
"That's been the story of the whole season, honestly," Gibbs said. "We've had leads in almost every game that we've lost throughout this losing streak. Something we have to maintain is keep playing defense, keep rebounding, keep taking care of the ball."
The Cardinals shot 70 percent from the floor in the second half.
Behanan kickstarted that run by scoring Louisville's first six points of the half - two baskets in the paint and a pair of free throws.
"I thought we got them going with some layups in some post-ups to start the half. Then they got some threes to get going and made free throws when we missed our free throws. Those things kind of build upon one another."
Kuric joined a long list of Cardinals players who have missed significant playing time due to injury when he turned his left ankle in practice a week ago, missing a win over DePaul and a loss to Marquette.
The senior swingman wasted little time making an impact upon his return early in the first half. He took a charge on his first offensive defensive possession then hit a layup at the other end of the floor.
It was the kind of leadership the Cardinals have lacked at times over the last month, when they lost five of seven to drop from No. 4 in the polls to the bottom half of the Big East.
They righted themselves in front of a national television audience at a place that used to be formidable. Pitt lost just 12 times in its first nine seasons at the Pete. The Panthers have now dropped four straight on their home floor.
Pitt has spent the last two months searching for an identity after Woodall went down in a win over Duquesne on Nov. 30. His absence forced Gibbs to take over most of the ballhandling duties, with mixed results — at best.
The Panthers looked more comfortable with Woodall running the show at the outset, racing to a quick six-point lead. But maybe Woodall was too anxious. He picked up two fouls before the game was 6 minutes old, and Pitt's rhythm disappeared.