NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Samardo Samuels grabbed the ball and launched a game's worth of frustration and all of his 260 pounds at the rim. Surely, this would be the moment the Louisville freshman would help the third-ranked Cardinals take control and finally put away Western Kentucky.
Jeremy Evans had other ideas. The Western Kentucky center -- all 190 pounds of him -- thrust his arm between the ball and the basket and somehow sent Samuels sprawling to the floor.
The rest of the Cardinals soon followed in a stunning 68-54 upset.
"It just gives you a little attitude that 'Hey, we're going to get this done,'" first-year Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald said about the big-time block. "That was a huge play."
There were plenty to go around for the Hilltoppers (3-2), who knocked off a top-three opponent for the first time in more than 40 years. A.J. Slaughter had a career-high 25 points and Steffphon Pettigrew added 17 points and 12 rebounds for Western Kentucky, which pulled away in the second half against the listless Cardinals (2-1).
"You don't like to learn your lessons from losing, but to be quite honest the way we practiced all week, we did not deserve to win," coach Rick Pitino said. "You reap what you sow."
McDonald, who got the coaching bug while sneaking into practices at Providence when Pitino coached the Friars in the mid-1980s, borrowed a page out of Pitino's playbook in giving the Hilltoppers their first win over a top-three team since beating Indiana in 1967.
Rather than throw his biggest players on the floor in an effort to offset Louisville's size advantage, McDonald went small, sending the 6-foot-5 Pettigrew out to guard the 6-9 Samuels. Getting help whenever Samuels got the ball in the post, Pettigrew helped limit Samuels to 11 points and eight rebounds in 36 mostly ineffective minutes.
"I knew [Pettigrew] was going to battle," McDonald said. "I know traditionally big guys don't like shorter, strong guys on them and Steph battled."
So did the rest of the Hilltoppers, who outrebounded Louisville 48-36, outscored the Cardinals 24-18 in the paint and dominated the final 15 minutes.
"They probably underestimated us because we're Western Kentucky and they're the No. 3 team in the country," said Pettigrew, who grew up in Elizabethtown, Ky., about 30 minutes south of Louisville. "We just tried to go out there and throw the first punch and keep our composure throughout the whole game."
The Hilltoppers landed the first punch, the last and most of them in between against the Cardinals.
Terrence Williams had 19 points and Earl Clark added 11 points and 11 rebounds for Louisville, which shot just 27 percent from the field and made just six of 30 3-pointers. Louisville's guards went a combined 3-of-23.
"They were open shots, the ball didn't go down," Pitino said. "We didn't offensive rebound with any great authority. It was a double-edge sword."
Western Kentucky held Louisville without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes in the second half and rode Slaughter and Pettigrew to the program's biggest regular-season win since knocking off then-No. 4 Kentucky in 2001.
This was no last-second stunner. Western Kentucky took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Slaughter with 13:50 remaining and pulled away.
Slaughter, the leading returning scorer from last year's team that reached the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, did it all. He finished with nine rebounds and helped steady the Hilltoppers in the second half.
"It shows that we can play with anybody in the country," Slaughter said.
Louisville, meanwhile, hardly looked like the trendy preseason Final Four pick. Settling for jumpers when the middle was cut off, the Cardinals clanged their way out of the game after taking a 37-36 lead with 14:15 remaining.
Slaughter's 3-pointer gave the Hilltoppers the lead and Anthony Sally followed with a runner on the baseline. Evans converted a putback and followed with a tip-in to push the lead to 47-40. Louisville would get no closer than five the rest of the way.
Samuels, who looked dominant at times during two easy Louisville victories last weekend, couldn't get going against the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky often threw two bodies at the freshman whenever he touched the ball making him either force something or give it up.
His teammates weren't much better. Louisville missed its first eight shots and never led by more than four at any point. The Cardinals appeared to grab a little momentum with a 7-0 run late in the first half, but Slaughter hit a 25-foot runner at the horn to tie it at 28 at the break.
"We got on the floor, got after it, rebounded," Slaughter said. "I think we just wanted it way more."