Louisville has already experienced a few emotional moments during its first 12 games - and conference play hasn’t even started yet.
Looking to build on a thrilling victory, the 23rd-ranked Cardinals open the Big East portion of their schedule Wednesday night, seeking their eighth straight victory over South Florida.
Louisville (9-3, 0-0) was ranked third in the preseason poll, but has fallen from that lofty standing following three non-conference losses - each coming by six points or fewer. It was No. 18 heading into its Dec. 31 matchup with UNLV before being upset at home 56-55 to drop five spots in the Top 25.
But coach Rick Pitino’s squad regrouped from that defeat Sunday, hanging on for a 74-71 home victory over intrastate rival Kentucky.
After the Wildcats’ Jodie Meeks scored seven straight points by capitalizing on two turnovers to tie the score at 71 with 23 seconds remaining, the Cardinals’ Edgar Sosa drained a long 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds left to cap his season-high 18-point performance.
Terrence Williams scored 19 points, but Sosa provided the biggest boost after being held to two points on 1-for-13 shooting in the loss to UNLV. The junior guard is sixth on the team in scoring with 6.1 points per game, but says he expects to continue improving.
“I don’t want people to be like ‘He had a good game against UK but went back to doing the same thing he’s been doing all along,’” said Sosa, who has totaled 24 points on 8-of-20 shooting in three games versus South Florida. “This is a good confidence builder and I just want to keep doing it.”
Sosa and the Cardinals will have a chance for that as they open their tough conference slate with a two-game swing - their first official road games of the season - at South Florida (5-8, 0-1) before visiting No. 18 Villanova on Saturday. There are a record nine Big East teams in this week’s poll.
Pitino’s team went 8-3 overall as a visitor last season en route to a 14-4 mark in the Big East.
The Cardinals have dominated the Bulls, going 21-3 in the all-time series while winning the last seven matchups by an average of 20.1 points. Their last loss in the series was 73-67 road defeat on Jan. 31, 2001.
South Florida is 7-44 in Big East play since joining the conference four years ago. It dropped its 2008-09 opener, despite rallying from a 16-point halftime deficit in a 59-54 home loss to then-No. 13 Syracuse on Friday.
Dominique Jones followed up a career-high 36-point performance from a Dec. 27 win over Iona with 17 points on Friday for the Bulls, who have lost seven of nine after a 3-1 start.
“I’m not interested in moral victories,” Bulls coach Stan Heath said. “But I am proud the we showed a lot of character and more toughness in the second half. We’re going to need to be that way. We need to be a team that’s going to scrap and outwork and not give up the easy basket we did in the first half.”
Jesus Verdejo, the Bulls’ second-leading scorer (16.3), was limited to six points and missed all 10 of his 3-point attempts. However, sophomore Mobolaji Ajayi stepped up with 15 for a struggling offense that is last in the Big East, averaging 61.3 points on 40.6 percent shooting.