LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—At the end of Louisville’s 77-70 win over Cincinnati on Wednesday night, Juan Palacios happily hopped near midcourt, still buzzing over the biggest shot of his career.
The freshman forward from Colombia scored 17 points and banked in an unlikely 3-pointer to seal the Cardinals’ eighth straight victory.
“I didn’t call it, but thank God it went in,” said Palacios, who had made only 16 3-pointers all season coming into the game.
Taquan Dean scored 19 points to lead No. 9 Louisville (19-3, 7-1 Conference USA), which has won 13 of 14 and six of its last 10 meetings with Cincinnati.
“That was a heavyweight fight and we got the last punch,” Dean said.
The Cardinals led 68-64 entering the final 90 seconds of a game that was dominated by the top two field-goal percentage defenses in Conference USA.
With the shot clock ticking under 10 seconds, Louisville guard Brandon Jenkins got caught in a double team near halfcourt. Palacios came to help and when Jenkins leaped and passed him the ball, Palacios turned and hit the straight-on bank shot from five feet behind the 3-point line.
“I knew it was good the whole way,” joked Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
“That’s just lucky, lucky Tello from Colombia,” said Louisville senior center Ellis Myles, calling Palacios by his nickname.
Palacios also banked in a 3-pointer in the Cardinals’ 105-69 win over Tulane on Saturday. This time, he got some urging from Pitino.
“Coach P was saying, ‘Shoot the ball! Shoot the ball!’ I knew I was far from the basket,” Palacios said. “I didn’t even have time to think about it.”
Louisville went 4-of-4 from the free-throw line in the final minute to keep No. 18 Cincinnati at bay.
“That was a very good win,” said Francisco Garcia, who was held to 11 points, six below his average. “I’m very proud of my teammates. We’re getting better every day.”
Eric Hicks matched a career high with 21 points to lead Cincinnati (17-4, 6-2), which was swept by Louisville for the first time since 1988.
Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins was pleased with his team’s performance, but harped on the Bearcats’ 20-of-31 shooting from the free-throw line. The Bearcats also missed 11 free throws in an 87-68 win over Houston on Saturday.
“We need guys to step up and make plays,” Huggins said. “I think they should throw it out of bounds instead of missing free throws. You are going to miss some, but we need to make more than we are making now.”
Cincinnati missed 13 of their first 18 shots in the opening 10 minutes, but trailed only 15-12 because of seven Louisville turnovers.
Louisville led 25-24 when a 3-pointer by Dean started a 7-0 spurt.
Palacios’ steal and a fast-break layup in the first minute of the second half gave Louisville its biggest lead at 40-31.
James White then scored in the lane to trigger a 9-0 Bearcats’ run.
The Cardinals rebuilt a four-point lead, but Garcia, Louisville’s leading scorer, got his fourth foul and left the game with 9:48 remaining. The Bearcats couldn’t take advantage, though, going four minutes without a field goal.
Without Garcia, Dean became Louisville’s go-to guy and sank two 3-pointers to push the lead to 64-55. Garcia returned with 3:59 left and the Cardinals ahead 66-60, but he fouled out a minute later, clipping Armein Kirkland’s arm on a layup. Kirkland hit two free throws to trim Cincinnati’s deficit to 67-64.
A free throw by Jenkins with 2:08 remaining put the Cardinals up 68-64.
The Bearcats had their chances to come back, but never shook their poor shooting, going 23-of-61 from the field (38 percent) and 4-of-18 from 3-point range (22 percent).
The Cardinals also generated 24 points off 17 Cincinnati turnovers.
“We know we have to be an excellent defensive team against them to win and we played excellent defense tonight,” Pitino said. “We kept saying the best defensive team is going to win this game.”