Jan. 11, 2009

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -The final buzzer sounded to end the biggest regular season win of Louisville coach Jeff Walz's blossoming career, but he hardly looked in the mood to celebrate.

Instead, Walz walked over and shook Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer's hand after the 10th-ranked Cardinals' 64-59 win over the struggling 17th-ranked Scarlet Knights on Sunday, then promptly went to midcourt and reminded his team about all the second-half mistakes that almost helped Rutgers escape.

Maybe that's the biggest sign of just how far the 10th-ranked Cardinals have come.

For a program looking to establish itself as a perennial power in the Big East, Walz knows there's still plenty of work to be done even after the Cardinals (16-1, 3-0) controlled all but a few frantic minutes of their 11th straight victory.

"We're trying to get our program to the next level, where they're talking about us like they're talking about Connecticut, Notre Dame, Rutgers," Walz said.

If the Cardinals can keep riding All-American Angel McCoughtry, they might get there sooner rather than later.

The senior scored 31 points - including four free throws in the final 20 seconds - and Louisville withstood a handful of late runs by the Scarlet Knights (8-5, 0-2) to stamp itself as a Big East contender behind the top-ranked Huskies.

"We have a higher standard now," McCoughtry said.

It's a standard the Scarlet Knights have been playing to for most of the last decade, but not this year. The loss marked Rutgers' first three-game losing streak in more than five years and left them 0-2 in the conference for the first time since 1995-96.

"We just played, for lack of a better word, little soft, a little hesitant," Stringer said. "Maybe I shouldn't build a team up so much."

Epiphanny Prince had a season-high 29 points on her 21st birthday and Kia Vaughn added 15 points and 13 boards, but the duo got little help from their teammates. The rest of the team shot just 5-of-22 from the floor.

"This team doesn't know that they're the Scarlet Knights," Stringer said. "We play scared. That's the way we played, very cautious."

The Scarlet Knights sure looked it during a dismal first half that saw them fall behind 26-14. McCoughtry did most of the damage, reeling off 12 straight points to give the Cardinals the lead as Rutgers slogged through possessions. Sometimes Rutgers couldn't get shots off - Louisville forced five shot clock violations - and other times it missed chippies around the basket.

Still, Rutgers had a chance thanks to its full-court press, which started to wear the Cardinals down in the second half. The Scarlet Knights cut the lead to 44-42 with 5:58 remaining but McCoughtry hit two free throws and Monique Reid hit a jumper in the corner to push it back to six and Rutgers wouldn't get closer than four points the rest of the way.

"It felt like when we were getting our runs, we weren't getting the stops we needed to get over the hump," Prince said.

It's a hump the Cardinals have finally surmounted. They've beaten the Scarlet Knights in three of the last five meetings and won despite 19 turnovers by making their free-throws in the clutch. Louisville went 32-of-42 at the line, including 9-of-12 in the final 90 seconds.

The loss continued a frustrating stretch for the Scarlet Knights, who haven't been the same since losing a 20-point halftime lead to No. 7 Tennessee a week ago. A blowout loss at Syracuse followed and now Rutgers travels to Villanova on Wednesday looking for answers.

"We're facing a three-loss skid," Stringer said. "It depends on how we're going to react to it. It's got to bother us as individuals. Hopefully such a thing as all of it paying off at the same time."