LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Through the injuries, the suspensions, the sloppy play, Rick Pitino never panicked.
The Louisville coach knew that eventually, seniors David Padgett and Juan Palacios would heal. That sophomores Derrick Caracter, Earl Clark, Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith would mature. And that the team that began the season with Final Four ambitions would eventually get better.
If Louisville’s 71-51 rout of No. 13 Marquette on Thursday is any indication, that team may have finally arrived.
Suffocating the Golden Eagles with the kind of tough, heady defense that has keyed its surge from an early season funk, Louisville (13-4, 3-1 Big East) dominated Marquette from start to finish.
“I’ve said it before, the staple of this basketball team is defense,” said Padgett, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds. “If we keep getting better and better on defense, and pick up our offense, the sky is the limit.”
Louisville’s revival has coincided with the return of Padgett from a fractured kneecap. Pitino credited his center’s leadership with helping Louisville’s underclassmen play with the sense of urgency they were lacking a month ago.
“When you have a player that acts like a coach (like David), it’s very easy,” Pitino said. “He has a tremendous positive effect on Earl and Derrick.”
The rest of the team too.
Terrence Williams led all scorers with 20 points and Derrick Caracter added 11 points and five rebounds, but it was Louisville’s defense that pushed the Cardinals to their eighth win in nine games.
The Cardinals held Marquette (13-3, 3-2) to 30 percent shooting by extending their zone defense to cut off passing lanes and close off the middle. When the Golden Eagles tried to shoot over the top, they failed miserably. Marquette missed all 12 of its 3-point attempts, the first time it has been held without a 3-pointer since a loss to Wisconsin on Dec. 23, 2000.
“You can’t settle for jump shots against good defense,” said Marquette coach Tom Crean. “We played right into their hands. We wanted to attack their defense and get open shots or kick it for open 3s. We didn’t attack well.”
Jerel McNeal led the Golden Eagles with 16 points and Wesley Matthews had 14, but star guard Dominic James scored a season-low three points before reaggravating a right wrist injury with just over six minutes remaining after being fouled by Padgett. He is expected to play on Sunday when the Golden Eagles travel to Connecticut.
“You never imagine (shutting James down) because he’s such a great player,” Smith said. “He just had an off night. … We wanted to stop them from 3. When they did get it up, we were able to get a hand up.”
The rivalry has been marked by thrillers over the last decade, with 14 of the last 22 meetings being decided by five points or less or in overtime.
There was no such drama this time around.
Louisville took the lead two minutes in, using its size to power past Marquette’s guard-heavy lineup. Looking inside to Padgett and Caracter on offense and extending the zone on defense, Louisville played with the kind of efficiency Pitino preached would come once the Cardinals finally got healthy.
“We are still not where we need to be, but we played a great game tonight,” Pitino said. “In another two weeks we’re going to be really good.”
Padgett made 8 of 9 field goals, many of them tip-ins after he maneuvered his way between bodies in the lane. The Golden Eagles simply had no answer. Louisville outrebounded Marquette 43-30 and contested nearly every shot.
“They were more aggressive on the glass than we were,” Crean said. “We were not nearly as aggressive as we needed to be.”
Louisville broke it open with a 12-0 run early in the second half after Marquette cut it to 30-26. Padgett started it with a hook shot, then followed with a layup off a nifty pass from Edgar Sosa. Jerry Smith then harassed James into airballing a 3-pointer. Padgett tipped in a miss by Williams, who added an 18-footer on Louisville’s next possession. Seldom-used guard Preston Knowles ended the run with a pullup jumper as Crean glared at the officials for a no-call at the other end of the floor.
Marquette managed to make it 50-40 with just over eight minutes left, but an 11-2 Louisville run, capped by a 3-pointer from Williams, sealed it to give the Cardinals their first win over a ranked team this year.
“If it doesn’t (get people’s attention) we’re going to keep playing until it does,” Williams said. “We’re just going to keep playing and let everybody on the outside decide if they think we’re back to ourselves.”