NEW YORK -- They're called the Cardinals, but Louisville plays defense like pesky gnats.
In the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament Thursday night, No. 4 Louisville (27-5) swarmed all over Villanova (20-13), 74-55 at Madison Square Garden.
The defending tournament champs forced seventh-seeded Villanova into 25 turnovers and seven Cardinals combined for 12 steals. Regardless of the score or the situation, coach Rick Pitino's team didn't abandon its ball-hawking pressure.
Louisville scored 27 points off of those turnovers.
"We win with our defense," Pitino said. "Our offense has gradually caught up to our defense."
The Cardinals, seeded second, have the benefit of guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith out front, while 6-11 center Gorgui Dieng cleans up the middle by altering shots. Smith led the Cardinals with 28 points and two steals and Siva chipped in with 10 points, four assists and three steals.
Smith played the game with a heavy heart. Earlier in the day he learned that his high school coach at Archbishop Malloy, Jack Curran, had died at 82. Curran coached baseball and basketball at Malloy in Queens, N.Y. for 55 years.
"It was hard for me to focus and put it all together," Smith admitted. "He (Curran) told me the road to success is always under construction. I will never forget that."
When Siva or Smith needed a rest, Kevin Ware came off the bench to antagonize. Ware registered two steals. Swingman Luke Hancock scored 12 points and had three steals and two assists for Louisville.
"We did a really good job of trapping and communicating," said Siva. "We made the right rotations. Scouting and watching film really helped us out."
JayVaughn Pinkston led Villanova with 17 points and Mouphatou Yarou recorded 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Villanova's freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono especially felt the defensive sting. He committed three turnovers and made only one of his eight shots.
"We don't have that jet fast guard that can blow by a defense," said Villanova coach Jay Wright.
Louisville opened the second half outscoring Villanova 21-9 in the first 10:31 to expand its lead to 51-30 with 11:52 to play. Smith scored 11 points in the run.
Villanova had three turnovers in the sequence.
"This team (Louisville) could win a national championship," said Wright. "We lost to a very, very good team."
The Cardinals' relentless pressure resulted in 18 turnovers for Villanova in the first half. Louisville took a 30-21 lead into halftime on the strength of its long distance shooting and maddening defense.
Louisville was 6-of-13 from beyond the arc in the half. Siva was getting it done on both ends. He had two of Louisville's eight steals and scored nine points on three 3-pointers.
Pinkston deposited eight points to top Villanova in the half.
The game was a rematch of the Jan. 22 affair won by Villanova 73-64. Since dropping that decision, Louisville has lost just two games.
In that signature win, Villanova sank seven of its 15 3-pointers. On Thursday, the Wildcats made just two of their 12 shots from beyond the arc.
"The whole thing tonight was to be aggressive on offense and defense," Siva said. "We came out with great intensity. We took away their 3-point shot. That's what hurt us the last time."
With three wins against top five teams and 10 wins in the Big East, Villanova's resume should be enough to get into the NCAA tournament.
NOTES: Louisville's 38 Big East Conference road wins over the last seven seasons are the most in the conference during that span. ... Villanova was picked to finish 12th in the conference in the preseason, but wound up in a tie for seventh. ... Peyton Siva's 182 career assists coming into the game were the fifth most in Louisville history.