NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper is learning a lot more about his bench with the injuries to his top two scorers.
Brandon Harris led the Hilltoppers with 14 points and reserve Eddie Alcantara had a career-high 11 as Western Kentucky lost 78-55 to No. 5 Louisville on Saturday night.
Sophomore guard T.J. Price started and played for the first time since spraining his right ankle Dec. 5, but he aggravated the injury and wound up playing only eight minutes. He finished with two points, well below his team-best 16.9-point average.
The Hilltoppers also were without Jamal Crook, the senior who broke his right foot Dec. 16 against Murray State.
"Brandon's having to play 40 minutes at the point," Harper said. "I bet he hasn't played 10 minutes at the point all year. So I'm proud of the way he's competing. Eddie hasn't been playing much and he stepped in and played really well tonight."
George Fant had 11 before fouling out with 4:34 left, and Eddie Alcantara also scored a career-high 11 points for Western Kentucky (8-5), which has lost three straight after winning six consecutive games.
Louisville (11-1) has won four straight and 21 of 24 overall in this series against its in-state rival. The Cardinals took this game across the border an hour south of Western Kentucky's campus in Bowling Green to kick off a new four-year deal between the teams.
Western Kentucky upset then-No. 3 Louisville on this court in 2008 and lost 70-60 on the Cardinals' home floor last season. The teams wound up with 10,728 on hand in the arena usually home to the NHL's Nashville Predators.
Russ Smith scored 20 points on a night Peyton Siva fouled out with just five points for Louisville. Wayne Blackshear added 17, Chane Behanan had 14 and Montrezl Harrell 13.
The Cardinals outshot Western Kentucky, led by double digits most of the way and controlled the game so much fans were chanting "Beat UK," anticipating a visit from Kentucky next Saturday.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he had seen only about 10 minutes of Kentucky this season.
"The only thing I know about them is somebody said they have three players projected in the top 10," Pitino said. "I said this is not professional basketball, this is college basketball. I said we're not worried about how they play for the Wizards, we're worried about how they play against Louisville."
The Hilltoppers did take better care of the ball. They had 13 turnovers in the first half and finished with 20 after having 32 turnovers in a 76-44 loss at Virginia Commonwealth on Tuesday night. Harris said that loss prepared them with the Cardinals' pressure not seeming as bad.
Louisville did score 26 points off the Hilltoppers' turnovers and also had a 21-4 edge in fast-break points while outscoring them 40-24 in the paint. But Western Kentucky had the edge in scoring off the bench 23-19.
"These three past games we've learned that guys can come in that coach puts in to step up and now we know we have a deeper rotation," Harris said.
Louisville outshot the Hilltoppers 50.9 percent (27 of 53) to 38.8 percent (19 of 49).
The Hilltoppers led briefly at 5-3 before Siva's 3-pointer put Louisville ahead to stay with 18:03 left. Smith scored on a fast-break layup and Blackshear added a 3.
Fant scored on a layup for Western Kentucky to pull within 11-7 before the Hilltoppers went cold for more than 6 minutes. They didn't score again until Harris' layup with 9:23 left despite handling the Cardinals' press only to miss shot after shot no matter how close.
By then, Louisville had the lead in double digits. Behanan hit a layup, Harrell added a dunk and Siva's two free throws gave the Cardinals their biggest lead of the first half at 28-9. It was 40-22 at halftime.
The Cardinals, perhaps looking forward to the break before hosting Kentucky next week, came out a little sluggish to start the second half. They hit just three of their first 11 shots, though Blackshear's 3 gave Louisville its biggest lead of the game at 47-26 with 16:42 remaining.
Western Kentucky hit seven of its first 12 and pulled within 50-38 on a layup by Fant with 9:14 to go. But he clanked the free throw off the rim, and Blackshear hit a long 3 with the shot clock running down. Then Siva scored on a layup to pad the lead.
Siva fouled out with 4:03 left with only five points on 1-of-6 shooting and five assists. It didn't matter, as Smith finished off the victory by scoring 10 points in the final 3:18. He went 8 of 9 at the free throw line to finish 11 of 13 from the stripe.