LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Losing three straight games the hard way made it somewhat fitting that No. 12 Louisville took the same route to beat Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Guard Russ Smith and center Gorgui Dieng didn’t care how it looked, as both focused solely on securing the outcome for the Cardinals.
Smith and Dieng combined for 34 points and sealed the game with four free throws in the final 12 seconds as Louisville ended its skid with a 64-61 victory over the stubborn Panthers, who erased an 11-point second half deficit to trail 60-58 with 13 seconds left.
“This is a good win for us because Pitt is a good team,” said Dieng, who finished with 14 points, 12 points, five blocks and four assists. His two free throws with 12.7 seconds left gave Louisville a 62-58 lead.
“I think this win will help us a lot, move our confidence up a little bit too,” he added. “We take each game as very important. We are playing for a seed so we just bring it every night.”
Dieng finished with his fifth double-double this season, four coming against Big East teams.
Smith meanwhile set the pace with 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting, adding five rebounds. But the junior’s biggest points were his two free throws with 4.2 seconds left for a 64-58 lead.
Those foul shots loomed large as Panthers guard Tray Woodall made two 3-pointers in the final 13 seconds, including one in the final second.
“We were able to grind it out, play hard and come out with a victory,” Smith said. “The last few games we had to dig in and we did that tonight. We just came out with a victory.”
Winning was the bottom line for Louisville (17-4, 5-3 Big East), which has slumped since moving to No. 1 two weeks ago. The Cardinals lost to Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown to fall into a five-way tie for fourth place in the conference entering Monday’s game.
But in extending their winning streak over the Panthers to four games, the Cardinals first had to overcome its own shortcomings. Louisville didn’t make a basket over the final 4:34, allowing Pitt to rally as Woodall made three of his team’s seven 3-pointers over the final 13:18.
Tense as that was for Louisville coach Rick Pitino, he was pleased that his players closed the deal after struggling the past two weeks.
“We played a really good game tonight, made our free throws,” he said. “We did a lot of good things. ... Gorgui played a terrific game. I thought all the guys looked for each other, did a lot of good things.”
Pittsburgh (17-5, 5-4) had its four-game winning streak stopped.
Louisville shot 45 percent (23 of 51). Pittsburgh shot 44 percent (25 of 57) and outrebounded the Cardinals 35-33 but couldn’t complete the comeback as Woodall missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 43 seconds left, leading to two free throws by Chane Behanan that put Louisville up 60-55.
Behanan finished with 12 points.
Senior guard Peyton Siva scored just two points but handed out 10 assists, his fifth game reaching double figures in that category.
“Siva just did a great job of running his team,” Woodall said. “He was in control the whole game. . He ran his team to perfection.”
Louisville won without starting forward Wayne Blackshear and guard Kevin Ware. Blackshear is out for a “short period” after spraining his shoulder in practice on Sunday, while Ware was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified reason.
The absence of Blackshear and Ware created another lineup shuffle for Louisville, which started forward Luke Hancock ahead of leading-scorer Smith in Saturday’s 53-51 loss at Georgetown. Smith returned to the starting lineup on Monday night with Siva, Hancock, Dieng and Behanan.
Their mission was slowing an athletic Panthers squad coming in on a roll, having won five of their past six. Pitt went from a 1-3 start in Big East play to third place behind Syracuse and Marquette and in the process matched or surpassed last year’s win totals.
Being back in familiar surroundings appeared to help the Cardinals regain their flow, at least in the first half. Trailing 9-6, Smith’s first 3-pointer sparked Louisville’s 12-0 run for an 18-9 lead and set the tone for an active first half.
The Cardinals scored in the halfcourt offense as well as transition and even got a 3-pointer from Tim Henderson, playing more minutes out of necessity, as they built a 32-20 lead with 4:49 remaining in the half behind Smith’s 13 points.
But Louisville went cold after that and settled for a 32-26 halftime lead preserved by its defense, which limited Pitt’s scoring chances and forced the Panthers into shot clock and 3-second violations down the stretch. Pitt committed 11 turnovers but stayed close with 12 of 26 shooting (46 percent) and a 19-17 rebounding edge.