INDIANAPOLIS – His college career officially over, Louisville senior Russ Smith took a long walk down the corridor, went into the Kentucky locker room and shook hands with a group of freshman he simply could not overcome.
Smith scored 23 points Friday night, but when his attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer came up short with 4 seconds left, his quest to close out college with back-to-back national titles was over.
The fourth-seeded Cardinals fell 74-69 to their in-state rivals in the Midwest Regional.
“I feel for him,” said Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, who made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 39 seconds left.
But the Louisville guard went 4 for 10 from the free-throw line, part of a 13-for-23 effort by the Cardinals. Louisville also got outrebounded 37-29 and gave up 10 more second-chance points than they scored.
Those numbers, coach Rick Pitino said, were key in a game in which the Cardinals did almost everything else right. “If you take that away, we played, really, almost a near-perfect game in a lot of areas,” Pitino said.
Louisville had a 13-point lead midway through the first half. The Cardinals led by seven with 41/2 minutes left.
Then, Kentucky took over.
Smith missed a late 3-pointer that would have tied the game. Smith said the shot came on a play that was designed to get the ball to Luke Hancock.
“I came off a ball screen and I automatically looked for Luke and then I saw he was being face-guarded by (Alex) Poythress and I tried to take a 3-pointer to tie it up,” he said. “Everything went the right way, Luke was just face-guarded.”
Pitino lost his first Sweet 16 game in 12 tries.
A few more rebounds here, another free throw or two there, and Louisville could be one win away from its third straight Final Four. Instead, its rival will play Michigan on Sunday in the Elite Eight.
“I told them we probably beat ourselves a little bit down the stretch,” Pitino said. “But how can any of us complain with the run we’ve been on?”