Smith fights illness to power Louisville into Elite Eight
INDIANAPOLIS -- Russ Smith sniffled, coughed and shook his head as if he were trying to snap out of a daze.
As the mercurial star did so on the back of a golf cart following top-seeded Louisville's 77-69 win against No. 12 seed Oregon on Friday night in a semifinal of the Midwest Regional, a man walking by stopped to congratulate the junior guard.
"Way to dominate," the man said.
Smith had done just that by matching a career-high with a gutsy 31 points on 9-of-16 shooting from the field in drafty Lucas Oil Stadium, continuing his torrid scoring pace in this NCAA tournament and furthering his argument as perhaps its most valuable player so far.
And he had done so despite having what Louisville coach Rick Pitino described as a "ridiculous cold."
"I'm terribly sick," said the congested Smith, who is averaging 27 points in his team's three victories in this NCAA tournament. "I just kept coughing."
As Smith spoke after the game, Pitino coughed. And when Pitino talked, Smith coughed.
"Unfortunately, Russ has infected our entire team," said Pitino, whose team next faces Sunday second-seeded Duke (30-5) after the Blue Devils beat third-seeded Michigan State 71-61. "All of our guys are really sick. It took a lot out of us."
It didn't look that way early for up-tempo Louisville (32-5) though. Looking every bit early like the favorite to win the national championship, the Cardinals raced to a 16-point lead in the game's first 11 minutes behind nine points from Smith and never looked back.
Smith, however, had to play more minutes than Pitino wanted when starting point guard Peyton Siva was saddled with foul trouble for much of the first half. Winded during timeouts from his sickness, Pitino repeatedly told Smith, "Fight through it. Dig in."
"The only problem is every timeout, Russ is hacking in our faces," said Pitino, who now has an 11-0 record in Sweet 16 games.
"Everybody is coughing and hacking. We just had to get our guys through it. Hopefully we'll get better."
Oregon (28-9) tried to rally back several times from its first-half deficit, using a 16-4 run to even pull within six points with 5:13 left. Yet it was too little too late for the Ducks, as Smith hit three of four free throws late to seal the game.
"We were trying to recover from that all day," Altman said of his team falling behind early.
But this night was all about Smith and his lethal dribble-drive ability. Oregon defenders were helpless as he drove at will to take whatever shot he wanted.
"When I'm on the court, I just see little spaces and I try to get to that spot before another defender does," said Smith, who entered the game averaging a team-high 18.4 points. "And if I can beat them to the spot before they slide, that's how I create some contact."
Smith got plenty of that against Oregon, making 12 of his 14 free throw attempts, just like he has all NCAA tournament, which includes a 23-of-28 effort from the line.
"Smith got going to the basket," Ducks coach Dana Altman said. "We just never got him slowed down."
Smith's cold was the only thing that seemingly could slow him down Friday. Not that anyone has been able to stop him during this NCAA tournament.
The waifish 6-foot-1, 165-pound Brooklyn native is shooting 55.3 percent from the field, far better than his 37.2 percent during Big East play. That makes a scary Louisville team that has won 13 straight games dating back to early January even more frightening.
"We just didn't contain his speed," Altman said of Smith.
Neither could North Carolina A&T in the second round when Smith tied an NCAA record with eight steals. He reminds Pitino of a "poor man's Allen Iverson", another undersized speedster who also could get whatever shot he wanted off the dribble.
But unlike Iverson, Smith isn't a household name.
"I'm baffled, just baffled because it wasn't like he's a Johnny-come-lately," Pitino said. "He carried us on his back to a Final Four last year. And we were short of gas tonight without Russ Smith. We couldn't win."
Louisville did on this night, though. And as Smith got on a golf cart to head back to the locker room after interviews, he coughed again.
Smith isn't sure what pills he is receiving from Louisville's trainers, but he said he took 11 Friday.
"I'm just focused on this tournament," Smith said.
Smith sniffled and sighed as he rode away. No opponent might have the cure for stopping him and Louisville.