LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Western Kentucky gave itself reason to hope in Friday night's 70-60 loss to No. 4 Louisville.
The Hilltoppers, who started four freshman in a KFC Yum! Center where the Cardinals entered on a 19-game winning streak, nearly snagged a signature win in the process.
Western Kentucky (4-9) led by as many as 13 points in the first half and eight in the second before losing to the Cardinals, who entered the game as one of six undefeated teams left in Division I.
"This is probably the only game honestly that we've really played together," said Derrick Gordon, one of the Hilltoppers' seven freshmen who had a team-high 13 points and nine rebounds.
Russ Smith scored 23 points to lead the Cardinals (12-0), who used a 14-0 second-half run — seven of those points from Smith — to take the lead for good over the resilient Hilltoppers.
Kyle Kuric added 15 points, and Gorgui Dieng had 13 points and 15 rebounds to notch his fifth straight double-double, adding to Louisville's best start in 37 years.
The Cardinals hadn't trailed by more than nine points in a game this season coming into Friday.
"It's just one of those nights where you're lucky to win," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "You've got to give all the credit to Western Kentucky. They were 4-8 and they were playing like they were 8-4."
Jamal Crook matched Gordon's 13 points for the Hilltoppers, who haven't beaten a ranked team on the road since a November 2001 upset over Kentucky. They defeated Louisville in November 2008 and watched film of that game to prepare for this one.
"We really thought we had to scrap for every rebound we could, make some extra hustle plays and get those 50-50 balls to take the crowd out of the game," Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald said. "It was a pretty quiet game, and that's the way we wanted it."
Louisville trailed by eight points with 12 minutes remaining, but the Cardinals reeled off 14 straight points, half from Smith. He finished with 23 points and his 3-pointer from the left corner off an inbounds pass gave Louisville the lead for good at 52-50 with 6:53 remaining.
"He's winning us games on just pure intensity, pure heart," Pitino said of Smith, a 6-foot sophomore guard. "He's the reason we're winning but we've got to get the rest of the guys playing like that."
Smith's 23 points was just one off his career-high that came in Louisville's 95-87 win over Memphis on Dec. 17. That performance earned Big East player of the week honors for Smith, who appeared in just 17 games in his first season.
"Russ Smith saved us again," teammate Peyton Siva said. "He makes some mistakes coming off the bench but his energy and his hard work are paying off."
Trailing 50-47 following a layup by Crook with 8:49 remaining, Louisville reeled off 14 straight points, half from Smith. Western Kentucky went scoreless until Crook's layup made it 61-52 with 2:21 to play. That started a 7-0 run as Nigel Snipes' 3-pointer from the right corner made it 61-57 at the 1:14 mark. Western Kentucky would draw no closer as Louisville scored its last nine points on free throws.
Smith's 3 from the corner off an inbounds pass gave Louisville a 52-50 lead with 6:53 remaining.
Louisville managed only nine points in the game's opening 10 minutes. The Cardinals faced their largest deficit of the season at 22-9 following a two-handed dunk by George Fant with 9:57 left
Louisville then sprung a 10-2 run, capped by Kuric's four-point play after being fouled by Fant. But WKU responded with 3s from Kevin Kaspar on consecutive possessions to push the Hilltoppers' lead to 30-19 with 6:43 in the first half.
The Cardinals gained their first lead of the game at 33-32 with 2:40 remaining as part of an 18-4 run to close the half, highlighted by three straight Louisville 3-pointers. Dieng's up-and-under layup finished the half for the Cardinals, giving them a 37-34 lead.
The Cardinals started the second half much as they did the first, surrendering the lead to the Hilltoppers off 10 straight points. The Cardinals failed to score until Siva's scoop shot in the lane dropped at the 14:16 mark to cut the WKU lead to 44-39.
Pitino said forward Rakeem Buckles pulled a groin in the game. Louisville hosts No. 16 Georgetown in its Big East opener on Dec. 28.
The 12-0 start for Louisville is its best in 37 years and puts it one game off the school record set by three teams, most recently in 1974-75. The victory was Louisville's 20th straight at home.
The Cardinals' performance Friday was markedly different from last year's effort. In their final game before Christmas. Louisville shot a season-high 64.6 percent from the field and throttled the Hilltoppers 114-82.
McDonald said the Hilltoppers have "for sure" turned the corner heading into Sun Belt Conference play.
"If we keep playing like this," Gordon said, "we shouldn't lose to nobody in our conference."
Friday's game was played as the 10th annual Billy Minardi Classic, honoring Pitino's brother-in-law who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.