Despite off games from Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, the No. 5 Louisville Cardinals had more than enough Saturday night against Western Kentucky.
The Cardinals faced a team missing its top two scorers and beat Western Kentucky 78-55 for their sixth straight win.
Smith finished with 20 points on a night he was 4 of 11 from the floor, including 1 of 4 beyond the 3-point line. He also turned over the ball four times, though he did go 11 of 13 at the free-throw line to help put away the victory.
But Smith only had two assists, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino wants more from the junior guard.
”If you’re a veteran in the NBA, the first thing you’re going to do is get everybody else the ball, get all that scouting off your back so then you can come alive the rest of the game,” Pitino said. ”As we say in coaching, sometimes it goes in one ear and out the other ear, and it’s somewhere out in Queens for Russ.”
The Cardinals (11-1) have won four straight and 21 of 24 overall in this series against their in-state rival. They took this game across the border into Tennessee, an hour south of Western Kentucky’s campus in Bowling Green to kick off a new four-year deal between the teams.
Wayne Blackshear added 17 points for Louisville, Chane Behanan had 14 and Montrezl Harrell 13. The Cardinals outshot Western Kentucky, led by double digits most of the way and controlled the game so much fans were chanting ”Beat UK,” anticipating a visit from Kentucky next Saturday.
Pitino planned a practice Sunday before a break for his Cardinals. He also said he has seen only about 10 minutes of Kentucky playing this season.
”The only thing I know about them is somebody said they have three players projected in the top 10,” Pitino said. ”I said this is not professional basketball, this is college basketball. I said we’re not worried about how they play for the Wizards, we’re worried about how they play against Louisville.”
Western Kentucky (8-5) was led by Brandon Harris with 14 points and George Fant had 11 before fouling out with 4:34 left.
Eddie Alcantara also scored a career-high 11 points, but the Hilltoppers played without their top two scorers T.J. Price and Jamal Crook in losing their third straight.
”Brandon’s having to play 40 minutes at the point,” Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said. ”I bet he hasn’t played 10 minutes at the point all year. So I’m proud of the way he’s competing. Eddie hasn’t been playing much and he stepped in and played really well tonight.”
Western Kentucky upset then-No. 3 Louisville on this court in 2008 and lost 70-60 on the Cardinals’ home floor last season. The teams wound up with 10,728 on hand in the arena usually home to the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
These Hilltoppers weren’t at full strength. Price started and played for the first time since spraining his right ankle Dec. 5 only to aggravate the injury. He played 8 minutes and scored two points, well below his 16.9-point average. Western Kentucky also played without Crook, who broke his right foot Dec. 16 against Murray State.
”We’re playing the No. 5 team in the country, and we gave them all they wanted for 30, 32 minutes,” Harper said.
Louisville outshot the Hilltoppers 50.9 percent (27 of 53) to 38.8 percent (19 of 49). The Cardinals also forced Western Kentucky into 20 turnovers they turned into 26 points and had a 21-4 edge on fast-break points.
The Hilltoppers led briefly at 5-3 before Siva’s 3-pointer put Louisville ahead to stay with 18:03 left. Smith scored on a fast-break layup and Blackshear added a 3.
Fant scored on a layup for Western Kentucky to pull within 11-7 before the Hilltoppers went cold for more than 6 minutes. They didn’t score again until Harris’ layup with 9:23 left despite handling the Cardinals’ press only to miss shot after shot no matter how close.
By then, Louisville had the lead in double digits. Behanan hit a layup, Harrell added a dunk and Siva’s two free throws gave the Cardinals their biggest lead of the first half at 28-9. It was 40-22 at halftime.
The Cardinals, perhaps looking forward to the break before hosting Kentucky next week, came out a little sluggish to start the second half. They hit just three of their first 11 shots, though Blackshear’s 3 gave Louisville its biggest lead of the game at 47-26 with 16:42 remaining.
Western Kentucky hit seven of its first 12 and pulled within 50-38 on a layup by Fant with 9:14 to go. But he clanked the free throw off the rim, and Blackshear hit a long 3 with the shot clock running down. Then Siva scored on a layup to pad the lead.
Siva fouled out with 4:03 left with only five points on 1-of-6 shooting and five assists. It didn’t matter, as Smith finished off the victory by scoring 10 points in the final 3:18. He went 8 of 9 at the free throw line to finish 11 of 13 from the stripe.