Russ Smith figured the best way he could honor Jack Curran was by leading Louisville Cardinals to a win.
Smith scored 28 points in a bitter-sweet homecoming, carrying the 4th-ranked Cardinals into the Big East tournament semifinals with a 74-55 success over Villanova only hours after the death of his esteemed high school coach.
Smith and the defending champion Cardinals (27-5) stressed Villanova into 25 turnovers and advanced to play familiar arch enemy Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden.
Luke Hancock added 12 points off the bench for 2nd-seeded Louisville that has won 8 straight – 7 by at least 14 points. Peyton Siva, the tournament MVP last year, scored 10. After the game, the Louisville Cardinals received a surprise visit from President Bill Clinton. A longtime basketball fan, he and Coach Rick Pitino have been friendly since Pitino was at Kentucky and introduced Clinton on campus.
JayVaughn Pinkston had 21 points for the 7th-seeded Villanova (20-13), assured they will receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament Sunday thanks to a string of high-profile wins against top- notch opponents this season. Mouphtaou Yarou added 13 points and 11 rebounds. Baseball lines
A first-team All-Big East selection, Smith was his usual frenetic self on the court, an energetic whirlwind of speed and steals and jump shots to go with his maddening turnovers and wild drives to the basket. He hit 10 of 11 free throws and shot 7 of 12 from the field, including 4 for 6 from 3-point range.
The 6-foot junior guard went diving past photographers chasing a loose ball less than 2 minutes in and crashed hard into the basket support when he was fouled on a fast-break dunk attempt. Smith hurt his ankle and came up limping, but stayed in the game.
He had 7 points and one of Louisville’s 8 steals in the 1st half as the feisty Louisville forced Villanova into a huge 18 turnovers before the break, including 6 in the first 3:31.The 25 total turnovers for the Villanova Wildcats, who were averaging 15.4 per game, matched a season high.
”We couldn’t get the ball over halfcourt,” Wright announced. ”Their guards were in us, man. They actually did a heck of job. That takes a lot of effort. They were very good.”
Pressing and trapping all over the court, Louisville tipped balls, forced tie-ups, got 5-second calls and created all types of general havoc for the flustered Wildcats, who wound up using several timeouts in tight spots just to prevent potential giveaways.
”Their guards absolutely dominated the game,” Wright said. ”That’s our weakness as a team. We don’t have that jet guard that will just break down a defense. … I believe our inexperience as a team definitely showed.”
Even when Pinkston appeared to be free for a dunk after Villanova broke the press; Siva sprinted back and slapped the ball out of bounds. Pitino said the Louisville Cardinals had 38 deflections by halftime and 58 overall, a record high on the special chart his assistants keep.
”That’s never happened in my 80 years of coaching. So it was an incredible thing to witness. Very, very active,” Pitino said. ”I think we were just very intense. We were really fast. We’re quick.”