LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Russ Smith really didn’t care about being top scorer in his home finale with Louisville because passing to open teammates was the better choice.
The star guard is showing he can be pass-first when needed.
Just ask Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell, who scored 20 points while Smith recorded a career-high 13 assists as No. 11 Louisville routed No. 19 Connecticut 81-48 on Saturday to claim a share of the American Athletic Conference championship.
The Cardinals (26-5, 15-3) finished tied with No. 15 Cincinnati atop the league. A postgame coin flip went to Cincinnati and left Louisville with the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
The Cardinals still got to hoist a trophy thanks to Smith’s generosity.
"Russ does so much for our team," said Harrell, who added 11 rebounds and several thunderous dunks. "He doesn’t just worry about scoring. He had like (three) points tonight and 13 assists, so how does he not make us better? … Right now, he’s just worried about us winning, and that’s what we need."
Smith’s performance was appreciated by a sellout crowd that gave him a standing ovation as he went to the bench with 4:22 left in the game. The reception capped a joyous day as he and fellow seniors Luke Hancock, Tim Henderson and Stephan Van Treese were honored as the program’s winningest class.
Their achievements included winning last year’s NCAA championship. All played key roles in Saturday’s 116th win together.
Smith made just one of two shots but topped his previous assist high by two. Hancock added 16 points while Henderson added an early basket on feeds from Smith. Van Treese grabbed 13 rebounds.
"It was just getting the ball to my teammates to get the ball movement going," said Smith, whose audience included nine NBA scouts. "When I looked at the film after the first UConn game, I was very sloppy with the rock. I wasn’t handling the ball as well as I should have. I negated any discrepancy about turning the ball over. I just kicked it out to other teammates."
Louisville’s defense, meanwhile, frustrated the Huskies (24-7, 12-6) into season lows in scoring and shooting (29.4 percent) in completing the sweep. Their previous shooting low was 29.6 percent in a loss to SMU.
"I didn’t see anything like this coming," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team still earned the No. 4 seed. "And I’m glad it came because now we know how tough we have to be to be a champion.
"We weren’t tough enough. We weren’t together enough. Louisville took every opportunity to take advantage of it. … That’s what champions do."
Wayne Blackshear added 11 points and Chris Jones 10 as Louisville won this matchup between two of the past three NCAA champions. While the defending champion Cardinals weren’t always smooth in beating the Huskies, they shot 45 percent (26 of 58) from the field and mounted a couple of second-half runs to put the game out of reach.
DeAndre Daniels’ 17 points led UConn, which had its four-game winning streak snapped and dropped to 0-4 at the KFC Yum! Center. Senior guard Shabazz Napier managed nine points on 2-of-13 shooting just days after scoring 26 points including a career-best seven 3-pointers in a win over Rutgers,
Emotion preceded the game as Louisville honored the seniors who helped earn the school’s third national championship last spring. Smith as expected drew the loudest cheers from a red-clad sellout crowd as a montage of his and teammates’ shining moments was played on the video screen, which included a shout-out from rapper Pit Bull.
Louisville’s 30-18 lead at the break eventually grew to 34 with 91 seconds left to put fitting end to a fond farewell to the seniors — especially Smith.
"It’s a special class because for four years they totally did things for all the right reasons," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
Of Smith, he added, "how would you ever imagine Russ Smith knowing on Senior Night he would pass up all opportunities to score and get 13 assists? That shows you how much he’s grown. If any pro scouts wondered tonight whether he could be a point guard, I think the thing is all closed."