scored 22 points in the second half to lead Louisville to a win over SMU. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Louisville's game at SMU on Wednesday served as a microcosm of what will be the Cardinals only season in the American Athletic Conference. Before they could blink, the Mustangs were out to an 11-5 lead that would eventually grow to 12 points just 10 minutes into the game, akin to how the Cardinals lost their third game of the conference season, forcing them to chase down Cincinnati for the next two months.
After falling behind 24-12, the Cardinals chipped away at the lead in vintage fashion, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. They ended the first half on a 20-6 run, fueled by the 15 turnovers the coaxed from the Mustangs. Their run to end the first half was analogous to their streak of 11 wins in 12 games after losing at home to Memphis on January 9 to get atop the AAC standings in a tie with the Bearcats.
SMU regained the lead early in the second half, but the Cardinals, behind a ridiculous performance from Russ Smith, took control of the game for good with 13 minutes left, ultimately pulling away for a 84-71 win. That final act of Wednesday's triumph over the Mustangs paralleled the Cardinals quietly taking control of the AAC in what might not be their last trip to Dallas this season.
Smith led the Cardinals with 26 points, 22 of which came in the second half in what was one of the best shooting displays of the season. The senior connected on all six of this three-point attempts after halftime, three of which came on consecutive possessions that turned a slim two-point lead into a comfortable seven-point one. His final long bomb of the night, from NBA range, put the Cardinals up by 10 with four minutes left, effectively ending the game.
It wasn't just Smith who brought the Cardinals to a win away from at least a share of the AAC regular season championship. Chris Jones scored 21 points and went 4-of-7 from behind the arc, while Montrezl Harrell had 19 points on 7-of-9 from the floor. The Cardinals also limited SMU leading scorer Nic Moore to five points, though he suffered an ankle injury and played just 19 minutes. He came back into the game late, though, so it doesn't appear to be an injury that should concern the Mustangs.
Much of the season was spent hand-wringing over the defending national champions. Non-conference losses to North Carolina and Kentucky and early losses in the AAC to Memphis and Cincinnati called into question their ability to beat tournament-quality teams. They're 5-5 against teams in the top 50 in RPI
, though they haven't lost to a team outside the top 30. Unless they suffer an unexpected loss in the conference tournament, that will still be the case heading into the big dance. Still, the doubters will remain, as the Cardinals only have four wins over teams guaranteed to make the field of 68, with two of those coming against SMU. No matter what the Cardinals do the rest of the season, those doubters will be there unless they can make a return trip to Dallas in three weeks time.