TAMPA, Fla. — Earl Clark lost his shooting stroke, but not his confidence.
Shrugging off a subpar performance in a win over Kentucky, the Louisville star scored 22 points and helped the No. 23 Cardinals open Big East play with a 71-57 victory over South Florida on Wednesday night.
Three days after missing nine of 11 shots, the 6-foot-9 junior from Plainfield, N.J., stepped up with leading scorer Samardo Samuels on the bench in foul trouble much of the game, going 8-for-18 and finishing with a team-leading nine rebounds.
Edgar Sosa added 12 points for the Cardinals (10-3, 0-2), who shut down USF during a crucial eight-minute stretch to pull away.
“Earl Clark was big,” USF coach Stan Heath said. “I saw him in the Kentucky game and figured he would come out pretty determined. His ability to hurt us, driving inside and also with 3-point shooting, was a tough matchup for our team.”
Dominique Jones led South Florida (5-9, 0-2) with 11 points, but missed nine of 10 shots from the field and was not on the floor at the end when Bulls reserves scored 10 points in the final 1:03 to make the final score look a little more respectable.
“We need Jones to be more effective for us, and tonight just wasn’t his night,” Heath said.
The Cardinals entered the conference opener on an emotional high after beating Kentucky 74-71 on Sosa’s long 3-pointer in the closing seconds on Sunday. They’ve won eight straight over South Florida and lead the series between the former Conference USA members 22-3.
“We have better talent. That’s what it comes down to,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “In a year or two, the talent will be fairly equal. … They’re young. Next year, they’ll be very competitive, and then they’ll turn the corner.”
Louisville’s arrival in Florida was delayed Tuesday after its plane returned to home after pilots received a warning message in the cockpit that indicated a fire on board. The warning turned out to be false, and the Cardinals took another plane that got into Tampa shortly after 11 p.m.
“We didn’t let it bother us,” Pitino said. “I think if you make a deal of it, then people think about it.”
With Samuels and Terrence Williams on the bench with two fouls, Louisville rode a 19-4 run to a 28-15 lead. USF whittled its deficit to 32-26 at the half, but the closest the Bulls got after the break was five.
It was 49-41 with just under 12 minutes to go, but Williams made a dunk and a layup — his only baskets of the game — during a 14-4 surge that enabled the Cardinals to pull away for good. The lead was 68-47 when Louisville emptied its bench, with the exception for Samuels, who finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting in 23 minutes.
Reserve Augustus Gilchrist scored 11 for USF, which hurt its cause by going 14-for-29 from the foul line.
The Bulls, held to three field goals during the stretch in which Louisville put the game away, have lost eight of 10 following a 3-1 start. They fell to 8-76 all-time against ranked opponents and are 7-45 in league play since moving from C-USA to the Big East in 2005.
Heath, in his second year at USF, is not discouraged.
“There’s a lot of teams in our league that are going to have to live with this fact. We may play, and somebody else may play, a very good basketball game … and still lose,” Heath said. “That’s the problem with this league. It’s so good. We can’t beat ourselves up after a loss. We’ve got to find what we can do consistently game to game that allows us to position ourselves to win.”