LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville basketball team, in the estimation of coach Rick Pitino, has overcome quite a few obstacles as it enters the February home stretch of the season.
"I think this team has weathered a big storm," Pitino said before the Cards' Wednesday night game at Houston. "And they've weathered it because they play so hard. I think this team, we lose Chane (Behanan), we lose Kevin (Ware), had some injuries, but they still continue. Even in the Cincinnati loss, their threshold for work is extremely impressive, and of never giving up."
But at Houston, after blowing out to a 19-point halftime lead, the Cards perhaps fell prey to a different kind of opponent in the second half — boredom. They led by 23 in the opening minute of the second half against a team they beat by 39 at home, then saw their lead dwindle to nine points late before hanging on for a 77-62 victory.
"We relaxed," guard Chris Jones told The Associated Press. "We were up 21 points. As we relaxed, they got back into it. Coach told us at halftime that they have come back against everyone in this place. I guess we relaxed, and they made a good run. I think we matured in this game and showed we can win a tough game."
Pitino did not talk to reporters after the game, sending word that he had to leave to look at a recruit. He sent assistant coach Kevin Keatts to his postgame news conference and Wyking Jones to his postgame radio show with Nelligan Sports. The Cards were without forward Wayne Blackshear, who stayed in Louisville with a concussion, but coaches said they still wanted a better second-half effort.
"It's always tough when you go in halftime up 19 on the road," Jones told Bob Valvano. "We did exactly what we wanted to do in the first half. I thought we kind of relaxed a little bit and weren't as aggressive on the press in the second half, and gave up some baskets in transition."
After shooting nearly 70 percent in the first half, U of L gave up 48 percent shooting in the second half as Houston got to the rim on the dribble repeatedly — and got the Cardinals into some foul trouble. But Jones responded with seven points in a 1:32 span down the stretch before fouling out to help the Cards get enough breathing room to coast home.
In his return to the starting lineup, Jones had 14 points, three assists and five steals.
"With Chris you just want him to stay even-keel," Jones said. "He's such an emotional kid, and he responded well tonight. He kept his head in the game, even when he didn't have a great first half, and for that stretch he really helped us out."
The Cards again got balanced scoring, with 15 points and 7 rebounds from Luke Hancock and 15 points and 5 rebounds from Montrezl Harrell. Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 17 points and six assists. U of L outscored Houston 24-5 on turnovers. The Cards shot 55 percent for the game, but were just 62 percent from the free-throw line, making 20 of 32.
"I think as a team we could have put a better effort on the defensive end," associate head coach Kevin Keatts said. "We had a couple blow-bys that certainly weren't good for us. I think we have to go back to work. We had defensive breakdowns that we have to get better at."
The Cards will have plenty of time to work. They now have a second eight-day layoff before returning to play. Pitino said the team will have more of a game-day routine on Saturday, with a full scrimmage, to break up the long period without a game.
They also expect to have Blackshear back for their next game, at Temple on Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.
Copyright 2014 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this story.