- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There comes a time late in games when Louisville players believe they can spot the tipping point.
Their opponents, gassed from constant pressure and harassment, begin to get weak in the knees and careless with the ball. The Cardinals know that's when it's time to strike.
Against Pittsburgh on Saturday night, the telltale moment came near the four-minute mark, after a Samardo Samuels dunk tied the score at 58.
"You could see it right then -- they were wasted," Louisville guard Edgar Sosa said. "They weren't running their press offense. They didn't want to do anything with it."
The closing mismatch between fitness vs. fatigue is a major reason why the No. 20 Cardinals knocked off the top-ranked and previously unbeaten Panthers 69-63 at Freedom Hall. It also has allowed them to beat three straight ranked teams and win four down-to-the-wire games in their past five outings. After a shaky start to a promising season, Louisville is back to top-flight status precisely because of the way it finishes.
"We try to hang our hats on being in the best shape of any team in the country," guard Preston Knowles said. "Then, come five minutes or three minutes left in the game, they don't have their legs any more. And that's how we thrive."
The formula worked Monday night against Notre Dame. The Irish didn't make a field goal in the final seven minutes of regulation and were outscored 16-2 in overtime of an 87-73 Louisville victory.
A similar scenario unfolded Saturday after Pitt (16-1, 4-1 Big East) muscled out to a 55-45 lead on Jermaine Dixon's lay-in with 8:55 left. The Cardinals (13-3, 4-0) responded with a 19-3 run to seize control, and the Panthers' only other field goal of the game came on a DeJuan Blair layup with 14 seconds left.
Point guard Levance Fields entered Saturday ranked second nationally in assist-turnover ratio and had only 24 turnovers in 16 games. Hounded and trapped up the court all night, Fields committed a season-high six of Pitt's season-worst 20 miscues. He had only six turnovers in his previous four games combined.
Louisville applies waves of backcourt pressure. When coach Rick Pitino subs out starting guards Sosa and Jerry Smith, reserves Preston Knowles and Andre McGee attach themselves to dribblers like a terrier on a mailman's ankle. Using three different types of presses, the Cardinals trapped, rushed and generally frustrated Fields.
"Usually, [Fields] tries to go by you," Knowles said. "We could see that he and their other guards were starting to turn their backs a little bit. They were speeding up their dribbles and throwing outrageous passes. That's how we create turnovers and quicker shots."
For his part, Fields wasn't sucking on an oxygen mask after the game. He disputed any notion that he wore down during his game-high 39 minutes, though he admitted Louisville's pressure pushed his team away from its preferred half-court style.
"I take the blame," he said. "I was out of control, and that helped make my teammates speed up a little bit. I think they saw me not playing at the tempo I usually do, and I think I kind of forced that."
The second-half numbers show how the Cardinals' defense gradually took over. Pitt went 1-of-16 from the floor in the final 8:42 and was 0-for-8 on 3-pointers after starting the game 10-for-18 behind the arc. The Panthers shot just 30.6 percent in the second half, while Louisville made 54.5 percent and 5 of 7 3s after halftime. Sam Young missed 14 of 20 shots and Fields was just 3-for-14.
Pitino's team was ranked No. 3 in the preseason -- two spots ahead of Pittsburgh. But head-scratching losses to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV at home sent the Cardinals tumbling down the polls. It wasn't until a Jan. 4 win over Kentucky when Pitino started seeing the type of all-out hustle his style requires.
"If you rely on offense and you get down, you get down more because you can't come back," Pitino said. "We're so good at the defensive end, and our effort is so good that we can always come back, and we believe in that. Once the effort got to the level where we want it to be, I think we became a good basketball team."
The effort against Pitt meant not just 40 minutes of pressing, but also being physical enough to match up against one of the best rebounding teams in the country. Louisville won the rebounding battle 42-38, drew even on the offensive glass and held double-double machine Blair to just nine points and 10 rebounds in 20 foul-plagued minutes.
Earl Clark wore the scar -- literally -- of that rough style. A three-inch long red scratch snaked across his forehead after the game, a badge he earned at some point in the paint.
"I'm feeling it right now -- my body is tired and bruised up," said Clark, who celebrated his 21st birthday with 16 points and 11 rebounds in 38 minutes. "But you just have to go after it. They [Pitt] keep telling the media how tough a team they are, how physical, and we just wanted to match that."
The Cardinals will need every ounce of their conditioning to plow through the ridiculously demanding Big East, in which almost every night seems like an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 dogfight. But right now, they are one of only two teams left undefeated in league play (along with Marquette), and they finally look ready to live up to preseason expectations.
The tipping point in their season may have already arrived.
"Rankings don't really matter and we don't look at it, but I'm going to go ahead and say it," Clark said. "Coach might get mad at me, but I say put us back in the top 10."
Brian Bennett is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.