WASHINGTON -- Louisville is in a crazy-good race for the regular-season championship of the Big East, where four of the nation's top eight teams sit atop the standings.
Georgetown, the two-time defending regular-season champion, is not a member of that quartet. The Hoyas are all but conceding that their only road to the NCAA tournament runs through the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Louisville's upperclassmen topped Georgetown's youth 76-58 Monday night, led by Earl Clark's 22 points, eight rebounds and four steals. The No. 6 Cardinals (22-5, 13-2) overcame 16 turnovers with solid defense and good first-half shooting to win their fourth straight and move into a first-place tie with Connecticut.
So much for Louisville coach Rick Pitino's early season thought that the regular-season champ would have five or six losses.
"I was hoping to be 12-6," said Pitino, whose team improved to 7-1 on the road in conference play. "I thought that would be a very good season, 12-6, in this league in this year, but we've been a great road team."
The Cardinals started 9-for-9 from the field -- their first miss coming nearly 11 minutes in -- and were 7-for-7 from 3-point range well into the second half. The marksmanship was more of a necessity than a luxury because they were so careless with the ball, but the initial shooting burst was enough to build a lead that kept Georgetown at bay throughout the second half.
"I thought we were doing a good job, but we were just turning it over too much," Pitino said. "That was killing us."
Samardo Samuels, Terrence Williams and Preston Knowles added 10 points apiece for the Cardinals, who had a 17-point first-half lead cut to eight in the second half. Louisville shot only 15-for-35 after the 9-for-9 start, but the defense forced 14 Georgetown turnovers and held the Hoyas to 31 percent shooting after halftime.
Chris Wright scored 12 points, and Greg Monroe had 10 for the Hoyas (14-12, 5-10), who have lost nine of 11 as they continue their challenging spin through the nation's basketball elite. Georgetown has played six teams currently ranked in the top 10. The Hoyas are 2-4 in those games.
The loss also dropped the Hoyas to 12th place in the Big East, just six weeks after they were ranked No. 9 in the country.
Asked about his team's NCAA tournament chances, coach John Thompson III said: "If there's one good thing about being in this conference it's that you get to go to New York and you get a chance to fight and you get a chance to win it. We have to continue to improve and we have to be better when we get to New York, it's as simple as that."
Samuels got the better of Monroe in the battle of freshmen centers -- at least while the game was still in the balance. Samuels got behind the Georgetown center to score two of the Cardinals' first three baskets and finished 4-for-5 from the field. Monroe, by contrast, didn't take a shot until a wayward 16-foot jumper more than 5 minutes into the game and went 4-for-7.
The Cardinals didn't miss a field goal until Clark's short jumper barely hit the rim with 9:01 remaining in the half, but by then Louisville already had 26-13 lead. Clark's 3-pointer gave Louisville a 41-24 lead with 3 minutes to play in the half, but Georgetown's Jessie Sapp scored the final seven points of the period, including a bank-shot 3-pointer at the horn that cut the lead to 41-31.
The Cardinals started the second half with turnovers on their first three possessions, but Georgetown could only cut the deficit to eight. The Hoyas had trouble solving the full-court press and couldn't find an offensive rhythm, with Wright finishing 3-for-12 from the field, DaJuan Summers 1-for-8 and Sapp 3-for-10.
"Once you lose and go through a stretch like we're going through, you don't feel as good about yourself," Thompson said. "It's as simple as that."
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