Either way, the No. 3 Cardinals achieved both goals in convincing fashion.
Senior guard Peyton Siva scored 17 points to surpass 1,000 for his career and contributed a team-high three steals as Louisville held South Florida to a season-low 27 percent shooting for an easy 64-38 victory that also marked the Bulls' second-lowest point total in school history.
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"We played the kind of defense we wanted to play," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said. "They came out the entire evening and played incredible defense, the defense we've been waiting for and what we've wanted to see. I'm real proud of the guys. They did an incredible job tonight."
Louisville (15-1, 3-0 Big East Conference) held South Florida to just 12 of 45 shooting including three of 17 in the first half. The field goals allowed were a season low for the Cardinals, two fewer than what Miami (Ohio) and Missouri-Kansas City made against them earlier this season.
Saturday's defensive effort follows what the Cardinals did in the second half of Wednesday night's 73-58 victory at Seton Hall, when they held the Pirates to just 8-of-28 shooting. Louisville also registered 12 steals for the second game in a row.
Center Gorgui Dieng added 12 points and 16 rebounds while forward Chane Behanan had 12 rebounds and seven points for the Cardinals, who won their 10th in a row. Behanan played just five days after injuring his left ankle in practice and missing Wednesday's victory against Seton Hall.
Siva meanwhile bounced back from 2-of-6 shooting against the Pirates to hit seven shots, including three 3-pointers. The Big East Conference preseason player of the year became the Cardinals' 64th player to reach 1,000 career points.
"It's a major accomplishment," said Siva, who reached the milestone with a reverse layup in a 13-point first half. "I was just trying to go out there and get the win. I told Luke (Hancock) I should have dunked it, but no, I was just trying to get the win.
"To be in the club with a lot of Louisville greats is great. It's a great honor."
The Cardinals dominated the boards 49-24 including a 19-6 edge in offensive rebounds. All that defense helped draw attention from Louisville's 38 percent shooting in a victory that avenged last February's home loss to USF that put the Cardinals' postseason hopes in doubt.
Louisville went on to win the Big East tournament and reach the Final Four. Most of the Cardinals' roster returned, and USF coach Stan Heath said that has made them a contender for the national championship.
"Dieng is so much better and Siva's making threes," Heath said. "That was not the case in the past. You'd dare him to shoot and you'd be OK with it.
"They're legitimate. If they keep improving, keep working, they're legitimate to win it all."
Victor Rudd came off the bench to score 10 points for South Florida (9-6, 0-3). But Louisville had this one from the outset.
The best news for the Cardinals was the sooner-than-expected return of Behanan, who sprained his left ankle in practice Monday and was expected to miss up to four games. But after watching the Cardinals' win at Seton Hall from campus, the sophomore declared himself available to play on Friday after X-rays that his pain was caused by a spur rather than the sprain.
Pitino vowed to play Behanan and inserted him during the first media timeout. Despite braces on both ankles, Behanan came out with spring in his step and quickly became a presence with a rebound, a tip-in basket and steal of an inbounds pass in his first two minutes alone. He ended up with eight rebounds in five minutes, exiting midway through the first half with nearly twice of USF's total (five) after 12 minutes.
"My whole foot was swollen for three days and there's still pain," Behanan said afterward with an ice pack on his ankle. "But it's something I could tolerate and won't let dictate us getting out of the top five in the country. I can handle the pain. It's all right."
Behanan added an alley-oop dunk on a lob from Siva to give Louisville a 19-3 lead that typified the Cardinals' first-half dominance. They led by as many as 25 before heading to the locker room with a 38-15 lead achieved mostly by relentless defense that made seven steals and forced 10 turnovers along with a whopping 30-10 rebounding edge including a 12-2 advantage offensively.
South Florida's poor shooting made some of those numbers possible. The Bulls shot just 23 percent in the first 20 minutes (five of 22) and made just two baskets in the first 10 minutes, resulting in a season low for first half points and their worst overall half since shooting 6 of 26 in the second half of a 58-53 loss to Western Michigan on Nov. 18.
The Cardinals stretched their lead to 30 with seven minutes remaining in the game.
JoVantae Hawkins had nine points and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick seven for the Bulls.