Shooting 58 percent in the first half should have given South Florida a chance to beat a ranked conference opponent on the road and re-energize its season.
Instead, USF (12-15, 3-11 American Athletic Conference) trailed No. 11 Louisville by 18 at halftime and lost 80-54 Tuesday night. Victor Rudd led the Bulls with a season-high 27 points and 10 rebounds.
Louisville (22-4, 11-2) hit as many shots (19) as South Florida attempted in the opening 20 minutes, negating the Bulls' strong shooting start. The discrepancy in scoring opportunities continued as the Cardinals finished 34 of 71 from the field (48 percent) while USF was 22 of 45 (49 percent).
"They really just beat us in the game of possessions," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "They get 71 shots; we get 45. How do they do it? The offensive rebounds and the turnovers."
USF has lost four in a row and nine of its last 11. The Bulls committed 20 turnovers and allowed Louisville to finish with an 18-5 advantage in second-chance points.
Louisville dominated inside, outscoring USF 56-26 in the paint. Heath said his two freshman big men — John Egbunu and Chris Perry — have talent but must learn to better hold their defensive positions and guard ball screens. Otherwise, opponents will continue to exploit USF's porous interior.
"In our last game, Central Florida's two big guys went 11 out of 12 from the floor," Heath said. "The game before that, we played Rutgers and Kadeem Jack had 31. It's been a re-occurring theme that we have got to fix."
Heath said his team could use the eight-day layoff before hosting No. 21 Connecticut to clear its collective heads.
"I think the most important thing for our team is just mentally, get ourselves back mentally," Heath said. "You're not winning games and it just takes its toll on you."
The Bulls returned to the site of their last win against a ranked opponent, when they beat Louisville on Feb. 29, 2012, and helped land an NCAA tournament bid and Heath the Big East Conference coach of the year honors.
That squad that won two tournament games was built on defense, an area where this year's young Bulls still need to grow.
"That's where I've got to get my young guys to buy in," Heath said. "Say, 'Don't get caught up in your offense. Bring it on the defensive end every possession."
Despite the losing streak, Heath saw improvement from his team after losing 86-47 to the defending national champions on Jan. 22.
"I don't think we played poorly," Heath said. "I just think they're really good. There are a lot of things we did a lot better this game than we did the last time we played them, but they come at you in so many different ways that it's just hard to get a rhythm going."
Russ Smith scored 19 points for Louisville.
Luke Hancock added 16 points and Montrezl Harrell had 14 despite missing much of the second half with four fouls as the Cardinals won their tuneup before Saturday's rematch at first place and No. 7 Cincinnati.
Veteran leader Rudd knows there is still a chance for his team to affect the conference race in the season's final weeks.
"I just want to get as many wins as possible going into tournament, and hopefully steal some wins in the tournament," Rudd said. "Our team has been playing hard the last couple games and that's all I can ask for as a senior."