INDIANAPOLIS – Even a nasty cold can’t stop Russ Smith.
With his teammates struggling with the virus he gave them and top-seeded Louisville facing its toughest test of the postseason, Smith put on his best show yet. He matched his career high of 31 points and the Cardinals proved they can win close games, too, beating Oregon 77-69 on Friday night.
“Without Russ Smith, we couldn’t win,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who improved to 11-0 in regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Louisville (32-5) plays Duke on Sunday, the first time Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski have met in a regional final since Christian Laettner’s shot in 1992.
Louisville has been nearly untouchable during its 13-game winning streak, beating opponents by an average of 17 points. And it looked as if this was going to be more of the same when Smith outscored Oregon 24-8 through the first 10 minutes.
But the 12th-seeded Ducks (28-9) made a game of it late.
After Louisville went up 66-48 with 9:01 left, Oregon made six straight field goals to close to 70-64 – the closest anyone’s been to the Cardinals in weeks. But Kevin Ware scored on a layup and Chane Behanan threw down a monstrous dunk to put the game out of reach.
Ware finished with 11, topping his previous career best by one, and Gorgui Dieng had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
“Russ Smith is a talented young man. They’ve got a lot of talented players,” said Ducks coach Dana Altman. “When he got going, we didn’t have an answer.”
E.J. Singler’s 15 points led five Ducks in double figures. But Damyean Dotson had an off night, held without a field goal until 5 minutes were gone in the second half, and Oregon could never recover from its poor start.
Early foul trouble didn’t help, with Johnathan Loyd picking up his third before halftime and Dominic Artis and Carlos Emory playing the last 6 minutes of the half with two.
“If it wasn’t for the beginning, it would have been a completely different game,” Loyd said. “We just came out, we weren’t ready and we got smacked. If we were playing the way we played in the second half the whole game, it’s a completely different story.”
That hacking cough that Smith has had the last few days is making its way around the Louisville team, and it was clear from the start this wasn’t going to be another juggernaut performance by the Cardinals.
Peyton Siva spent the last 15:19 of the first half on the bench after picking up his second foul, and Louisville wasn’t nearly as stingy on defense as it’s been. The Cardinals (13) had more turnovers than the Ducks (12), and Oregon is only the third team to shoot 44 percent or better during Louisville’s streak.
“We’ve been a great defensive team – not a good one, a great one – all season,” Pitino said. “Tonight, their quickness was so good, all it did was wear us out defensively. But we had Russ Smith and Kevin really bail us out of some situations that could have gone either way.”
“We really dug ourselves a big hole,” Singler said. “We tried to fight back as much as possible, but Louisville’s a really, really good team. They just played better than us today.”