PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kyle Kuric won't be able to shed the walking boot protecting his bum left ankle for at least one or two more weeks.
The Louisville senior forward can deal with the cumbersome shoe so long as it helps him play with the confidence he showed in the 23rd-ranked Cardinals' surprisingly easy 73-62 win over reeling Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
Kuric scored a season-high 21 points in his return after missing two games with a high ankle sprain, only occasionally favoring his injured leg.
"I didn't want to just get there and make excuses, 'Oh, my ankle's sore,'" Kuric said. "So I just put it outside of my mind."
Chane Behanan added a career-high 19 points, while Gorgui Dieng had 13 points and 14 rebounds for the Cardinals (15-5, 3-4 Big East), who took control during an 11-2 run midway through the second half to send the Panthers (11-9, 0-7) to their eighth straight loss.
"It's definitely tough, but at the same time, we have to continue to keep our heads up," Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said. "If you want to win a game, you can't win a game and not be mentally there."
Gibbs and Lamar Patterson led Pitt with 14 points each but the defending Big East champions remained the only winless team in conference play.
The Panthers hoped the return of point guard Tray Woodall, who missed 11 of the last 12 games with groin and abdominal injuries, would end the program's longest losing streak in more than a decade.
Instead, Woodall went scoreless in 21 minutes, missing all five of his shots and turning it over three times. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon didn't blame Woodall for the sluggish play considering the lengthy layoff.
"We've got to get him out there," Dixon said. "He's got to play and he'll be better the next time out."
Kuric joined a long list of Cardinals players who have missed significant playing time due to injury when he turned his left ankle in practice a week ago, missing a win over DePaul and a loss to Marquette.
He practiced 20 minutes on Friday but wasted little time making an impact upon his return early in the first half. He took a charge on his first offensive defensive possession then hit a layup at the other end of the floor.
"He gave us a big lift in the first half," Pitino said. "Offensively you're so much better of a basketball team with him in."
It was the kind of leadership the Cardinals have lacked at times over the last month, when they lost five of seven to drop from No. 4 in the polls to the bottom half of the Big East.
They righted themselves in front of a national television audience at a place that used to be formidable. Pitt lost just 12 times in its first nine seasons at the Petersen Events Center. The Panthers have now dropped four straight on their home floor.
Pitt never led over the game's final 26 minutes, with its best chance of making a game of it coming when Dante Taylor's dunk drew the Panthers within 45-41 with 13:04 to play.
Then, the turnover problems that have plagued the Panthers all season returned. Louisville scored 11 of the game's next 13 points, six coming off Pitt giveaways. By the time Russ Smith buried a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Cardinals up 56-43, the packed house at the Pete started to thin out.
Pitt, the worst shooting team in the league, shot 55 percent (26 of 47) from the field but only made it to the free throw line six times, making just one.
Not exactly the kind of performance the Panthers — the Big East's winningest program over the last decade — were looking for in the midst of the toughest season Dixon's nine-year tenure.
The Panthers have spent the last two months searching for an identity after Woodall went down in a win over Duquesne on Nov. 30. His absence forced Gibbs to take over most of the ballhandling duties, with mixed results — at best.
The Panthers looked more comfortable with Woodall running the show at the outset, racing to a quick 13-7 lead. But maybe Woodall was too anxious. He picked up two fouls before the game was 6 minutes old, and Pitt's rhythm disappeared.
Louisville turned an early six-point deficit into a 31-28 halftime lead, with Kuric displaying the kind of clutch shotmaking that makes him arguably the Big East's most improved player as a junior.
Thrust into a true leadership role this season, Kuric hasn't quite been able to muster the same magic. Yet he looked like his old self at times, calmly drilling 3-pointers from the corner and mixing it up as Louisville turned a typically tight series — three of the last four meetings had been decided in overtime — into a relative laugher.
It was the kind of win the Cardinals knew they needed to get back in the Big East race after late-game meltdowns against Georgetown and Notre Dame and 31-point whipping at the hands of lowly Providence.
"We said all along we've got to win two on the road and win our home games," Pitino said. "Now we're one game away from .500 getting back into this."
Follow Will Graves on Twitter @WillGravesAP