By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Through the injuries and sometimes inconsistent play that sent Louisville tumbling from the polls more than two months ago, Louisville coach Rick Pitino never doubted the Cardinals would recover.
Now his team is back where Pitino thought it'd be all along: atop the Big East.
David Padgett scored a season-high 26 points and No. 13 Louisville overcame a dazzling 40-point performance from Notre Dame center Luke Harangody to post a 90-85 victory over the 17th-ranked Irish on Thursday.
"We never got disappointed in December," Pitino said. "We never got down and we certainly aren't going to hug ourselves now."
Louisville's eighth straight victory moved the Cardinals (23-6, 13-3 Big East) into a first-place tie with No. 11 Georgetown with two games remaining. Louisville plays Villanova on Sunday and ends the season at Georgetown on March 8.
"This is a great win for us, but we can't relax," Padgett said. "We want to finish it like the way we're playing now. We want to win two more games and win a Big East championship."
The victory restored some order to one of the nation's toughest conferences and made a believer out of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
"Who's better in the country?" Brey said. "I don't know who's better in the country than them."
The Cardinals looked among the nation's best for the game's first 35 minutes. Louisville never trailed and led 73-54 on Padgett's layup with 5:41 to play.
Harangody, however, made sure Notre Dame (21-6, 11-4) wasn't finished. He knocked down the first three 3-pointers of his career in the final 1:32, eventually pulling the Irish within 86-81 with 23 seconds left.
In the end, it wasn't quite enough to overcome the Cardinals. Earl Clark and Edgar Sosa made four straight free throws in the last 19 seconds to preserve the victory and keep Pitino's late-season plan for the Cardinals intact.
"We wanted to win eight out of 10 and we're doing it," Pitino said. "We've secured it with two to go. Now we've got two games to go to win a championship."
It's a position the Irish hoped they would be in if they found a way to slip by the Cardinals.
Notre Dame had surged to third place in the Big East behind a scarily efficient offense that simply ran by opponents. Louisville, however, slowed the Irish early with a frenetic fullcourt press then held on down the stretch even after Harangody unleashed his latest weapon.
Harangody's point total was the highest by a Notre Dame player since Monty Williams scored 42 against Valparaiso on Nov. 28, 1993. It was also the most scored by an Irish player in a Big East game. He added 12 rebounds to post his 17th double-double of the season.
"If we got the win, that's all I wanted," Harangody said. "It was a huge opportunity. That's all we were looking for. I'm sad we didn't come out of here with a win."
Ryan Ayers added 17 points for Notre Dame, but the Cardinals bottled up Irish guard Kyle McAlarney. One game after setting a school-record with nine 3-pointers in a win over Syracuse, McAlarney managed just seven points on 3-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-8 on 3-pointers.
"There was always someone out there on him," Brey said. "That's the one guy they neutralized a little bit, using different bodies."
Clark and Terrence Williams scored 14 points apiece for Louisville. Sosa and Andre McGee chipped in with 10 points each. Louisville shot 53 percent from the floor to overcome 20-of-32 free throw shooting.
Pitino said he thought the Cardinals could run with the Big East's highest-scoring offense, and the Cardinals did it during a dizzying first 10 minutes.
Using a fullcourt press to push the tempo, the Cardinals raced to a 34-16 lead. Louisville hit 13 of its first 18 shots, including 5-of-6 3-pointers.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, struggled. Though Harangody did his best to keep the Irish in it, scoring 12 of Notre Dame's first 14 points, the rest of the team was bottled up by Louisville's defense.
"It's hard to absorb that kind of start," Brey said. "We were on our heels a little."
With McAlarney constantly harassed, the Irish missed their first seven 3-point attempts, not connecting until Ayers hit one with 46 seconds left in the first half. By then, Louisville led 42-27 and was on its way to its eighth consecutive victory.
No. 13 LOUISVILLE 90, No. 17 NOTRE DAME 85
NOTRE DAME (21-6)
Kurz 3-9 2-2 9, Hillesland 2-4 2-2 7, Harangody 16-28 5-7 40, Jackson 1-7 0-0 3, McAlarney 3-14 0-0 7, Peoples 0-0 2-2 2, Zeller 0-1 0-0 0, Ayers 6-9 0-0 17. Totals 31-72 11-13 85.
Williams 5-10 2-3 14, Clark 5-6 4-6 14, Padgett 10-14 6-8 26, McGee 3-5 2-4 10, Smith 3-6 0-1 8, Knowles 0-0 0-0 0, Palacios 1-3 2-4 4, Sosa 2-7 4-6 10, Caracter 2-7 0-0 4. Totals 31-58 20-32 90.
Halftime--Louisville 42-27. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 12-29 (Ayers 5-6, Harangody 3-4, Hillesland 1-1, Jackson 1-4, Kurz 1-5, McAlarney 1-8, Zeller 0-1), Louisville 8-17 (Williams 2-3, McGee 2-4, Sosa 2-5, Smith 2-5). Fouled Out--Kurz. Rebounds--Notre Dame 40 (Harangody 12), Louisville 33 (Clark 9). Assists--Notre Dame 25 (Jackson, Kurz 5), Louisville 15 (Padgett, Sosa, Williams 4). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 23, Louisville 13. Technical--Notre Dame Bench. A--19,881.