CINCINNATI -- Louisville's 58-57 road win Saturday bore some resemblance to Rick Pitino's new facial hair. Not always smooth. Definitely some scraggly patches.
But, like the beards Pitino and his players began sporting before Valentine's Day, the No. 11 Cardinals might not be going away anytime soon. Much as they did a year ago at this time, the defending national champions are displaying noticeable growth in February. Louisville (23-4) has won six straight and got its first major scalp of the season by nipping No. 7 Cincinnati in a close shave.
"This was big for us," swingman Wayne Blackshear said. "There were a lot of doubters out there saying how good are we because we can't beat a ranked team. But obviously we pulled one out today."
It took a signature moment of Russdiculousness for the Cardinals to finally earn that cornerstone victory. Russ Smith knocked down a jumper from the left elbow with 2.2 seconds left, helping Louisville avenge a three-point home loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30 and creating a virtual tie atop the American Athletic Conference standings with the Bearcats.
That Smith would take and make the game winner came as no surprise. The unexpected part was that his late-game unselfishness proved the difference in a back-and-forth street brawl of a contest.
Cincinnati erased a 10-point second-half deficit and led 55-52 with just 1:28 left after Justin Jackson sank two free throws. After a timeout, Smith dumped the ball to Montrezl Harrell for a dunk off a designed pick-and-roll. On Louisville's next possession, Smith contorted through traffic to find Harrell for an easy layup.
Down by two points with under 10 seconds to go, Smith drove left off a Blackshear screen. The Bearcats met him with a double-team, so he passed the ball out to Terry Rozier on the wing. Rozier took one dribble and rose up, later saying he thought about shooting it. But, at the last moment, he spotted Smith standing alone to his left and passed it back, showing uncanny poise for a true freshman.
"It was a great play," Pitino said, "but it was an even better play by Terry."
There's little doubt that trigger-happy Smith would have jacked up a quick shot rather than work for a better one early in his career. But the senior -- who made only three field goals Saturday -- said he showed maturity by searching for his teammates against the Bearcats.
"That was the right thing to do," he said. "That was the basketball play, to give it up.
"I knew scoringwise that I wasn't going to beat Cincinnati. It was going to be a team effort, and I was going to have to find people, get Montrezl going, get everybody else going. I feel really good about the decisions I made down the stretch."
Louisville won in an extremely hostile environment despite getting only 10 points from Smith and enduring one of Luke Hancock's worst games (0-for-6 from the floor, five fouls). That's because other players are starting to contribute more, which is a great sign for the Cardinals as March approaches.
In a fitting regular-season halt to this rivalry -- the two teams have no scheduled games in the foreseeable future after the Cardinals bolt to the ACC -- every play in the paint turned into a mosh pit of flying body parts. No one enjoyed that more than 235-pound Harrell, who led Louisville with 21 points and 10 rebounds. That marked Harrell's sixth double-double in his past 12 games, and Pitino said the sophomore forward is "really developing into a great basketball player."
"I just try to go out there and be that one to dive on the ball or hustle down to the block," Harrell said. "Just do something to get my team going and hope they feed off my energy."
Rozier, a nonfactor much of the season, added 11 points and has scored in double figures in three straight. He provided key minutes and defense Saturday as Hancock struggled.
"I never really played that much against good teams earlier in the year," Rozier said. "[Pitino's] confidence in me is definitely growing, and I'm getting more minutes and more looks. He's starting to trust me."
Even Blackshear, who has had a frustrating tendency to disappear in big games, came up with the key defensive play by blocking a Sean Kilpatrick layup attempt with 47 seconds left.
Pitino said he gave the same pregame speech he delivered before last year's Final Four game against Wichita State, telling his players the better defensive team would win. Neither team shot well in what Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin described as a "bloodbath," but Louisville held the Bearcats to a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor. That included a 3-for-26 start to the game.
Kilpatrick matched the 28 points he scored in last month's win at the KFC Yum! Center but had to work much harder for his points as the Cardinals' aggressive zone often kept him far from the lane. He hit just nine of his 26 shots and -- after an 11-for-11 free throw performance in the first meeting -- missed a foul shot that could have given his team a three-point cushion in the final two minutes.
The Bearcats (24-4) lost for just the second time since Dec. 14. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear to be taking off at the right time. They vowed before last week's win at Temple not to shave again until they lost a game. Results have varied on that fuzzy front.
"I look like a 61-year-old, aging Al Pacino," Pitino joked after the game.
The most striking facial features among the Louisville contingent Saturday afternoon were the broad smiles through the whiskers. The beards will continue to grow. So, too, does this team's outlook.