LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The loss stung Louisville seniors Chris Smith, Kyle Kuric and Jared Swopshire. The officiating chapped coach Rick Pitino. And the 19th-ranked Cardinals will once again need to prove they can win a grinding, offensive game.
Kuric and Smith scored 14 points each, but South Florida ruined the Cardinals' senior night with a 58-51 victory Wednesday night that gives the Bulls the signature win they have desperately sought for their NCAA tournament resume.
"It was a tough loss," Pitino said. "They were the better basketball team tonight in that style. They're bigger, stronger; you got to give them credit. They've been waiting a long time to get into the tournament."
Jawanza Poland led South Florida (19-11, 12-5 Big East) with 16 points, and with the game tied at 41, both sides scrapped through an ugly sequence.
Louisville's Russ Smith missed a 3-pointer long on a 4-on-3 break, the Bulls snagged the rebound and had a 3-on-2 advantage, but Hugh Robertson missed a follow-up dunk that had coach Stan Heath putting his hands on his head in disbelief.
He would start smiling soon enough.
Augustus Gilchrist scored, Robertson made an acrobatic play off a miss by Gilchrist by bouncing it off the backboard and putting it back in to give the Bulls a 45-42 lead with 3:59 left. Poland hit a 3 that pushed the lead to six points.
Chris Smith answered with a three-point play that cut it to 48-45 and South Florida burned its final two timeouts with 1:22 left, including a disputed call when it appeared Fitzpatrick didn't maintain possession despite the bench being awarded a timeout.
"It was a bad call. There were a lot of bad calls in the game. Nobody says we were going to win the game, but it was definitely a poor call," Pitino said. "The ref heard the coach call a timeout, so he blew the whistle. Just ask the other two guys, it was a complete loose ball — nobody had possession."
On the ensuing inbounds play, Poland hit a jumper that made it 50-45 with 1:20 left.
"That play is set for me to go all the way to the corner," Poland said. "I went to the corner and they collapsed in."
Kuric cut it to 51-48 on 3-pointer with 39 seconds to go, but the Cardinals could get no closer.
South Florida has won six of seven since a 30-point loss at Georgetown and was considered on the bubble with a game remaining at home against West Virginia on Saturday.
The Cardinals (22-8, 10-7) had won their 10 previous home finales, but shot 34 percent for the game and watched the Bulls hit 8 of 10 from the free throw line in the final minute to seal the victory.
"Did they want it more? Maybe," Kuric said. "But they didn't want it as bad as I did."
The Cardinals looked disjointed throughout, never more apparent than the final possession of the first half when Peyton Siva waited much too long to initiate the offense, lost the ball briefly and was forced to take an awkward attempt at the baseline that barely grazed the rim as time expired with Louisville down 22-17.
It wouldn't get much better in the second half for the Cardinals, who have dropped three of their last five and have a road trip to No. 2 Syracuse next. The Orange beat Louisville by a point on Feb. 13 after losing seven straight to the Cardinals.
"I thought about it a lot before this game that I wanted to steal their senior night, but I also wanted to win ours," Smith said. "Now, to make up for this, we have to go up there and beat them."