PITTSBURGH -- A young Louisville team has improved steadily all season and is in position for a first-round bye in the Big East tournament. Still, coach Rick Pitino couldn't believe what he was hearing about the Cardinals.
Nothing. No buzz. No hype -- at least until now.
David Padgett and Derrick Caracter neutralized Aaron Gray inside while Louisville's 2-3 zone defense was taking away Pittsburgh's (No. 5 ESPN/USA Today; No. 7 AP) outside shooting, and the Cardinals dominated both halves to rout the Panthers 66-53 Monday night.
The Panthers (22-4, 10-2 in Big East) sustained their worst loss since moving into the Petersen Events Center in 2002, where they had been 78-7. Their worst previous defeat there was 73-64 to Connecticut on Feb. 26, 2005. They hadn't lost by double figures at home since an 81-67 defeat to Georgetown on Feb. 5, 2001.
This one was never close, a stunningly easy romp for Louisville (18-8, 8-4) that tightened the Big East race. The Cardinals raced to a 13-2 lead that they increased to 33-14 late in the first half, partly because conference-leading Pitt had more turnovers than points for most of the half.
Pitt ended with 19 turnovers, 15 before halftime, as its Big East lead over Georgetown slipped to a half game. The No. 14 Hoyas beat No. 23 West Virginia 71-53 on Monday.
"I didn't recognize that team," coach Jamie Dixon said, referring to how sluggishly his team played at the start. "Some of the turnovers we were committing, I didn't recognize."
What Pitino didn't recognize was the lack of attention for his Cardinals, who need to win only twice more to get to 20 wins.
"We had to play Pitt, or someone like Pitt, because everybody is talking about signature wins and not paying attention to us," Pitino said. "We think that when we go to DePaul and South Florida and win in the fashion we win they're great wins, but nobody else does. As I watched TV, I realized I shouldn't coach or play anymore because we don't even get mentioned. The writers don't even mention us for the NCAAs."
Pitino told his team there was only one way to get that recognition.
"I told the guys that if you want to dance [in the NCAAs], you've just had Christmas come early because you have to play Pitt -- and you have to beat them," Pitino said. "And that's the hard part because they are a great team."
The 6-foot-11 Padgett and 6-8 Caracter, effective together in the same game for the first time since early in the season, were too much for the 7-foot Gray to handle by himself inside. Gray drew his fourth foul with 14:06 remaining as Caracter scored inside to make it 42-27, and Gray wasn't a factor again.
"It was just a bad day. It's going to happen sometime," Gray said. "Maybe it's better it happened now rather than down the road. The true test is how we respond to this -- not what happened out there. I'm still very confident in this team and this coaching staff. I don't foresee this happening again."
So much for comparative scores. Louisville lost to Dayton and Massachusetts, teams that Pitt easily beat.
"How we played is not indicative of this team," Gray said. "But we're going to get past it. Maybe it's something we needed to show us how good we aren't."
Or maybe how good Louisville can be.
Padgett, who sprained a foot Saturday against South Florida and was questionable to start, had 16 points and four blocked shots.
Caracter, a highly recruited freshman just off a six-game suspension for violating various team rules, played his second strong game in a row with eight points and four rebounds. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds in substantial playing time Saturday after Padgett was hurt.
Pitt was similarly sloppy for much of its 74-68 victory Saturday over Providence, its fifth consecutive win and 12th in 13 games, but Gray bailed them out with 22 points and seven rebounds. He couldn't do so this time, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Pitt had no success shooting long 3-pointers over Louisville's effective zone.
Pitt came into the game shooting a Big East-best 42.6 percent from 3-point range, but missed its first 13 shots from beyond the arc until Ronald Ramon hit one with about seven minutes remaining and Pitt down by 16. The Panthers ended 3-of-21 (14.3 percent) on 3s.
"When you miss your 3s, you're going to get that kind of deficit," Dixon said. "You've got to shoot it well against a zone."
Louisville had lost two in a row before beating South Florida, but has won six of eight and 13 of 17.