LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The strengths that propelled Louisville to last year's national title are missing for the No. 12 Cardinals, who were left searching for answers after Thursday night's 73-67 loss to No. 24 Memphis.
What bothered coach Rick Pitino most was how a team that thrived on pressure defense could commit so many mental errors. A victory slipped from the Cardinals' grasp as a result and left Pitino questioning his players' basketball smarts.
"We got confused a couple of times with the game on the line with what defense we're in," Pitino said. "We didn't get confused one time last year."
Several frustrating moments stood out in particular for Louisville (13-3, 2-1 American Athletic Conference).
The Cardinals led 64-59 following Montrezl Harrell's one-handed slam with 3:50 to play, but found themselves tied just 37 seconds later after miscues on both ends of the court led to consecutive Memphis dunks. Russ Smith fouled Tigers guard Joe Johnson on the latter, leading to a three-point play.
The Cardinals took a 67-66 lead with 2:12 remaining when Harrell completed a layup off Luke Hancock's cross-court lob, but they didn't score again.
"This is one of the more frustrating losses I've probably been a part of because we were like right there," said Smith, who scored 19 points.
Louisville returned several important players from last year's national championship team, including Smith, a preseason All-American, and Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. But the loss of floor leader Peyton Siva and defensive anchor Gorgui Dieng to the NBA has been evident on a Cardinals squad that Smith said is a work in progress.
"Not reminiscing, because that year is over," Smith said, "but we have a new team and we have new pieces. We just have to make the most of our parts."
Memphis (11-3, 2-1) certainly utilized its parts against Louisville.
Joe Jackson and Shaq Goodwin each scored 15 points as all five Tigers starters reached double figures.
Geron Johnson added 13 points, Chris Crawford 12 and Austin Nichols 10 to help the Tigers end a four-game losing streak to Louisville. Memphis shot 51 percent and outrebounded the Cardinals 37-35.
It was the fifth straight game in which Louisville was outrebounded, reinforcing Pitino's lament that his team lacks leadership.
"You have to be a defensive player to be a leader; you can't be an offensive player," he said. "It takes defense to win. They shot 51 percent. You can't give up 51 percent at home and expect to win a ballgame, even though we could have."
Louisville was handed its first home loss in 10 games this season after winning the previous nine by at least 16 points. The Cardinals have lost to all three of their ranked opponents.
A healthy Hancock scored a season-high 20 points and matched his career best with five assists.
The Cardinals overcame a 36-33 halftime deficit to take their first lead at 41-39 with 14:54 left. They eventually built it to 61-55 with 5:26 remaining before the Tigers closed with an 18-6 run led by Jackson, who scored 11 second-half points.
Jackson's layup on goaltending by Harrell put Memphis up 70-67 with 40 seconds left and he added a free throw before Goodwin followed with a dunk in the final second to seal the hard-fought win.
Louisville has more opportunities to correct things, but Pitino said his players can't hang their heads right now. The Cardinals just have to adjust in a league that's turning out to be tougher than they anticipated.
"There's really no fixing it but to just win a game," Smith said. "That cures all sicknesses."