LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Western Kentucky played the type of game it wanted to against the defending national champions, if only for a half.
"If it was a 20-minute game, they were in trouble," WKU coach Ray Harper said after Saturday's 79-63 loss at No. 6 Louisville.
"But unfortunately, they did some really good things in the second half."
The Hilltoppers (5-4) kept the pace slow early and overcame missing its first seven shots to lead 28-25 following a dunk by George Fant with 2:14 remaining. Louisville's Wayne Blackshear answered with two corner 3-pointers to give the Cardinals a 31-28 halftime lead.
"I thought first half, we did some really good things," Harper said. "We dictated tempo. We did not rebound the basketball like we needed to, or we could have been up six or seven (points). But we didn't do that."
Louisville (9-1) opened strong after halftime, scoring its first fast break points when Tim Henderson pushed a pass ahead just off the fingertips of WKU's Brandon Harris to set up a layup by Blackshear with 16:12 to go.
That put the Cardinals up 42-33 and Russ Smith's 3-pointer capped a 14-5 Louisville run for a 45-33 lead with 15:25 left.
The Hilltoppers cut the lead to 50-44 on Chris Harrison-Docks' transition jumper with 11:24 remaining but got no closer. WKU went scoreless for nearly 6 minutes as Louisville went on a 13-0 run.
Louisville stretched the lead to 19 before T.J. Price's basket with 5:36 left made it 63-46.
"If we stay consistent, we're right in that game," Harrison-Docks said. "We've got to continue to be disciplined."
Harrison-Docks and Trency Jackson saw their first action at guard since transferring from Butler and Texas Tech, respectively. WKU had started true freshmen at point guard in all eight games before Jackson started Saturday.
"These two guys are creators, guys that can get in gaps and make plays for other guys," Harper said. "That's very important. It's something we've lacked and missed a little bit through the first eight games."
Harrison-Docks finished with 10 points and Jackson had six.
Price's 22 points led WKU, which shot just 36 percent and was outscored 36-14 inside. Harris, coming off a career-high 30-point game at Southern Illinois, finished with four points.
Price was pleased with the way his team competed and is happy to have reinforcements in the backcourt.
"Even though we lost, I feel good that we played against them," Price said. "These two, Trency and Chris, they played a good game but they're capable of much more than what you all saw tonight."
Smith had 14 points and 10 assists as Louisville shot 69 percent from the field in the second half to pull away.
With starting point guard Chris Jones sidelined at least a game with a sprained right wrist, the Cardinals got numerous backcourt contributions to beat their in-state rival for the fifth straight time. Freshman Terry Rozier grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds starting in Jones' place while Henderson added career highs of 12 points on four 3-pointers and four assists.
The Cardinals made 13 of their first 21 attempts from the field after the break to build a 63-44 lead with 6:02 left. They shot 18 of 26 in the second half.
Mangok Mathiang added a career-high 13 points and Chane Behanan had 11 for Louisville, which shot 30 of 59 overall (51 percent) after hitting just 36 percent in the first half.
Louisville improved to 38-39 all-time against WKU in a series that both coaches want to continue even though its programs are headed to new leagues next season. The Cardinals will leave the American Athletic Conference to join the Atlantic Coast Conference while the Hilltoppers will move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA.
Harper believes this loss could help his team down the road in conference play as the Hilltoppers seek their third straight tournament title.
"I thought we took a step in the right direction," Harper said. "We're not where we need to be yet, but we're going to keep working."