HOUSTON — Despite a blowout of Houston three weeks ago at home, Louisville knew that the return game wouldn’t be so easy. And it wasn’t.
Russ Smith scored 17 points and No. 14 Louisville weathered a second half Cougar rally to beat Houston 77-62 on Wednesday night.
Luke Hancock added 15 points, hitting eight of nine free throws, while Montrezl Harrell also had 15 for the Cardinals (19-4, 8-2 American).
The Cardinals shot just under 70 percent from the field in the first half, including 6 of 10 from behind the arc in building a 19-point halftime lead. Louisville finished the game shooting 56 percent.
"We got the ball in some spots that really hurt them," Smith said about the first half shooting. "Our guys were hurting them and making shots. When the ball goes in, sometimes it’s an illusion of how you are really playing. Then, the ball didn’t go in and they made their run."
TaShawn Thomas had 14 points and eight rebounds, and Jherrod Stiggers added 14 points to lead the Cougars (11-12, 3-7), who dropped their fifth straight and have lost seven of their last eight games. Danuel House had 11 for Houston.
Houston shot 46 percent from the field but committed 14 turnovers, leading to 24 points for the Cardinals.
"We can’t turn the ball over," Houston coach James Dickey said. "They’re the best in the country at converting turnovers into points. They had 24 points off turnovers, and eight points off rebounds. You cannot contribute to a quality team, and they’re certainly championship caliber."
Trailing 53-33 with 16 minutes remaining, Houston used an 18-7 run over the next 8 1-2 minutes to close within nine on Tione Womack’s runner with 7:37 left. Stiggers had eight points in the run.
"In the second half, we woke up," Thomas said. "In the first half, I feel like they were playing harder than us and in the second half we kind of woke up and realized that we can play with them. We started to come back, but just didn’t have enough to get the lead back."
Louisville responded by pushing the lead back to 71-56 with 4:43 remaining on a Jones jumper. Houston would get no closer than 11 the rest of the way.
"I think as a team we could have put a better effort on the defensive end," Louisville associate head coach Kevin Keatts said. Keatts spoke to the media instead of coach Rick Pitino, who was scrambling to get on the road for recruiting with other coaches.
"We had a couple blow by’s that certainly wasn’t good for us," Keatts said. "I think we have to go back to work. We had defensive breakdowns that we have to get better at."
Pitino did not appear happy with the team’s defensive play in the second half.
"A loss like this could really hurt you in the long run," Jones said. "I think he (Pitino) wanted it more than some of the players. He’s a competitor, I’m a competitor. I felt what he was feeling tonight. I felt I had a good groove. I felt he really wanted this win badly."
Louisville opened up a 15-point lead with an 18-3 run over a 6 1/2 minute stretch of the first half. Smith had six points on two three-pointers in the run that was capped by a Jones 3-pointer with 7:46 remaining in the half to make it 29-14. Houston was 0 for 3 from the field with five turnovers during Louisville’s run.
The Cardinals lead expanded from there, growing to 40-19 on a Jones 3-point play with 4:13 to go in the first half.
Louisville led 45-26 at the half.
"We relaxed," Jones said. "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."
Louisville was playing without forward Wayne Blackshear, who missed the game with a concussion. Blackshear had averaged 9.7 points a game.
Houston honored longtime head coach and 2013 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Guy V. Lewis in a pre-game ceremony. Former players including former NBA head coach Don Chaney and Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes were in attendance for the ceremony in which Lewis was presented with a proclamation that Wednesday was `Guy V. Lewis Day’ in the city of Houston.