LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Duke does not arrive in Louisville until Saturday, but a Who’s Who of U of L athletics chose not to wait until the weekend to examine Rick Pitino’s team.

Bilal Powell, who ran for more than 700 yards with the New York Jets this season, was tucked in a front row seat at the KFC Yum! Center. 

There was Damion Lee, the Cards’ leading scorer last season, who is on a break from the NBA Developmental League while awaiting ACL surgery.

There was Juan Palacios, whose return to pro basketball in Turkey will be delayed because he dislocated a finger on his left hand playing with Pitino’s guys the other day.

And, there was Russ Smith, the irrepressible star of the 2013 NCAA champs, with his hair pulled back and hidden under a denim baseball cap.

What did they see?

They saw Louisville surge to a 21-point halftime lead and then play about 27 good minutes. Then they saw a Louisville team that could have used Smith, Lee, Palacios and even Powell to survive the final 10 minutes.

Favored by 11, the Cardinals beat Pittsburgh, 85-80. There’s more to the story.

The Cards moved so far ahead (26) that the crowd was entertained when Powell, Lee, Palacios and Smith were introduced. There's no drama when you're ahead, 52-26.

But Pittsburgh closed with so much fury, cutting Louisville’s lead to 81-76, that Pitino tossed his sport jacket and tie while coaching the final four minutes. He looked primed to pop every button on his white dress shirt.

"We played a brilliant first half and then we constantly got beat off the dribble in the second half," Pitino said. 

"We definitely let up," said Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson. "It was obvious, just like the Baylor game (that the Cards lost after leading big in The Bahamas in November) ... You can't let up."

Mark it down as a game that twisted from a surprisingly easy lead to an even more jarring stress-burger over a Pitt team with wins over Virginia and Maryland. The Cards moved to 14-3 and 2-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"You have to play good or better (to win in the ACC)," said Pitt coach Kevin Stallings. "You can't play average and win in this league ... They were just better than us."

They saw the Cardinals beat the Panthers in a way neither Lee nor Smith nor Pitino could have predicted:

By shooting one of the most fearsome three-point shooting teams in the ACC into submission early and then holding on as Pitt’s Jamel Artis, the ACC’s second-leading scorer, made three after three after three (finishing with 43 points).

Get this: Louisville, the team ranked 14th in the ACC in three-point percentage, made four of its first six from distance.

Pitt, a team with three guys shooting better than 40 percent from behind the line, missed nine of its first 11 threes.

"We just played our defense and confused them," Pitino said. 

No wonder the Cards crackled to a 32-14 lead in the game’s first 13 minutes — and stretched their advantage to 21 at halftime and then 26 early in the second half. By game's end the numbers shifted, resulting in Pitino shedding his clothes -- and cool.

"You have to try to find a way when you play a team like them to try to be the aggressor," Stallings said.

Michael Young and Artis, a pair of Pittsburgh seniors, rank first and second in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring. They give the Panthers a combined average of nearly 44 points per game. Six NBA scouts showed up to watch them play.

They got their points, most of them after Louisville led by more than 20.

Young, the ACC’s top scorer, failed to make a shot from distance in the first half. Credit him with 17. A 46-percent three-point shooter this season, Artis punished the Cardinals with 32 of his 43 in the second half. He took 13 threes and made seven.

"Give him credit," said U of L guard Donovan Mitchell. "He made some of those shots from the (Denny Crum) writing far from the basket."

Why did Louisville succeed early?

"We played together," said Johnson. "We played tough defense."

Ball movement. Avoiding challenged shots. Making the extra pass for a better shot. The Cardinals did all of those things on offense.

The defense, until the final 10 minutes, was as unrelenting as usual, the wall-to-wall stuff that has Louisville ranked in defensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics. 

Louisville pushed its lead to 52-26 early in the second half. Pitt did not fold. The Panthers knocked a dozen points off the margin, trailing 63-49 with more than eight minutes to play.

But David Levitch sliced through a trap near mid-court to find an unguarded Deng Adel near the rim for a dunk. Mangok Mathiang stopped Pitt with a block, which led to another basket on an Adel drive, squashing Pittsburgh’s momentum — until one final surge.

A three-pointer by Artis pushed Pitt within 71-64. Quentin Snider answered with a drive from the left wing — and Pittsburgh never got closer than five.

Snider led Louisville with 22. Mitchell and Adel each contributed 15. The Cardinals handled Pitt on the glass, 45-30, but had only 12 assists against 18 turnovers.

Louisville returns to Second and Main Saturday at noon to welcome Duke. The Blue Devils will be without coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is mending from back surgery. Duke has split its first four conference games, losing at league leader Florida State Tuesday night.

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