February 02, 2015

Barred from the postseason, Louisville is sure competing like a team with something to play for.

The 11th-ranked Cardinals can still achieve their lone remaining goal of an ACC regular-season title, a quest aided by a three-game winning streak.

Those chances will be further impacted by the outcome of Saturday's visit to No. 12 Miami, which also sits in the thick of the championship race entering the season's stretch drive.

The self-imposed ban for the sex scandal has seemed to galvanize the Cardinals rather than deflate them. After stumbling briefly with consecutive road losses to Duke and Notre Dame, they've responded by winning last Saturday's rematch with the Blue Devils in between key victories over Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

The streak has vaulted Louisville (22-6, 11-4) into a second-place tie with Miami (22-5, 11-4). Both stand one game back of seventh-ranked North Carolina, which visits No. 3 Virginia in another high-stakes matchup on Saturday night.

"You would think we were favorites to win the national championship with the way we're practicing," coach Rick Pitino following Wednesday's 67-60 win at Pitt, in which the Cardinals closed on a 27-12 run to overcome an eight-point deficit with nine minutes left.

Louisville is receiving contributions throughout the roster to remain in the race despite season-ending injuries to key post players Mangok Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud. It received lifts from two seldom-used players on Wednesday, with freshman Deng Adel recording 12 points and seven rebounds starting in place of an injured Raymond Spalding and former walk-on David Levitch hitting a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 2:34 left that sparked an 8-0 run.

"We were just really undermanned (Wednesday), and they played beautiful basketball," Pitino said. "I've coached a lot of Final Four teams, some championship teams, but I haven't been any prouder of a basketball team than this one."

The Hurricanes also showed resolve in their last outing, bouncing back from last Saturday's 96-71 rout by North Carolina to earn a pivotal 64-61 win over Virginia. The result improved Miami to 5-1 in games decided by seven points or less, with four of those victories coming during its current 6-1 stretch.

''We got knocked down big time on Saturday and you've got to get back up and fight to show what you're made of,'' coach Jim Larranaga said. ''I thought we did that (Monday) against an outstanding Virginia team.''

Davon Reed went 5 of 6 from 3-point range in a career-high 21-point effort and the Hurricanes had just nine turnovers, continuing their recent trend of taking care of the ball. They've averaged 9.3 giveaways over their last nine.

Louisville thrives on taking the ball away, forcing a conference-best 14.6 turnovers per game. The Cardinals induced 18 in their 71-64 comeback win over Duke, including eight in the final 10 minutes to rally from a 15-point second-half deficit.

The Cardinals have lost four straight on the road to ranked teams, suffering close defeats to Michigan State and Kentucky in December. Miami is 8-0 in ACC play at home and has won 12 straight in Coral Gables since being upset by Northeastern on Nov. 27.

Miami, 4-2 against Top 25 foes this season, is playing the third of a four-game sequence against ranked teams. The Hurricanes visit No. 23 Notre Dame on Wednesday.

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