Russ Smith can always provide an offensive boost for Louisville. His defensive contributions will keep him on the court even longer.
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Smith set personal bests with 24 points and seven steals as No. 4 Louisville survived a rough-and-tumble matchup with former conference foe Memphis 95-87 on Saturday to extend the Cardinals’ home winning streak to 18 games.
”Seven steals is just a great accomplishment,” said Smith, who made the most of a rare start. ”Anybody can get 24 points, but seven steals is really special.”
Coach Rick Pitino almost passed on Smith despite shining as a youngster at their basketball camps. But Smith grew from 5-foot-9 to a 6-foot frame and kept impressing Ralph Willard, who stepped down as the school’s director of basketball operations earlier this year.
”Ralph just kept saying, Russ is the guy we need,” Pitino said. ”Russ was terrific. He’s got great hands. He has no fear. … I’m real proud of him.”
Gorgui Dieng added 14 points and 14 rebounds in the schools’ first meeting since the Cardinals (10-0) beat the Tigers (5-4) by a point to win the Conference USA tournament in 2005 before departing for the Big East.
Will Barton set career highs with 28 points and 16 rebounds for Memphis, which rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to take the lead before the Cardinals overwhelmed the Tigers down the stretch in a game that featured 54 fouls.
”It was like a war we ended up winning,” Dieng said. ”It was physical.”
Louisville is off to its best start since the 1996-97 season and on its longest winning streak at home in 27 years. It took almost everything the Cardinals had to extend it.
After Memphis rallied from a 13-point deficit to take a 58-55 lead, the two sides traded baskets for 6 minutes until Louisville took control.
”They withstood our runs, and they made the last one that counted,” Barton said.
With the game tied, Chane Behanan hit two free throws, Rakeem Buckles finished a layup on a fast break, Dieng grabbed an offensive rebound and hit a shot in traffic, and Kyle Kuric finished an alley-oop slam from Smith to give the Cardinals a 78-70 lead with 4:49 to play.
Chris Smith’s 3-pointer gave Louisville an 83-73 lead and Tigers never got back within a possession as the Cardinals finished with seven players in double figures. Peyton Siva finished with 13 points, Buckles 12, Kuric and Smith 11 apiece and Behanan 10 for Louisville.
Joe Jackson scored 22 points for Memphis and Chris Crawford added 12.
This game harkened back to the two schools’ time together in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Metro Conference and Conference USA with Memphis wearing throwback uniforms from their days under coach Gene Bartow in the early `70s. Pitino has advocated that Memphis be added to the expanded Big East conference, and games like this could bolster the Tigers’ chances.
”It was exciting to have Memphis back. We’ve had some great games with them. I’m just hoping the Big East gets smart and does something about that and allows them to come into the league,” Pitino said. ”I keep getting on the pulpit and saying this: We got hurt big time and we need Memphis. Memphis doesn’t need us, we need Memphis. We need Temple. We need to build up basketball again.”
Kuric hit a 3-pointer to give Louisville a 47-34 lead with 18 1/2 minutes left, but Memphis rallied with a 13-3 run. Jackson hit a jumper and gave Memphis its first lead in nearly 20 minutes when he scored with a floater off the backboard and was fouled.
Jackson pumped his fist, yelling ”That’s right!” then sank the free throw that gave Memphis a 58-55 lead. But Buckles answered with a free throw and a 3-pointer to keep the game close until Louisville’s decisive 8-0 spurt.
Memphis gave up 24 points off turnovers and missed 14 free throws, the two reasons Memphis coach Josh Pastner cited in the loss.
”It’s pretty black and white,” Pastner said.
The Cardinals have big games looming later this month with No. 16 Georgetown on Dec. 28 and a Dec. 31 trip to No. 3 Kentucky, but this was a win to savor against their former rival.
”We definitely still got work to do. It’s still early and we’ve still got conference play,” Russ Smith said. ”That’s what’s important.
The Tigers began the season ranked 11th in the poll after returning all five starters and 10 letter-winners, but dropped games to Michigan and Georgetown in the Maui Invitational before losing at home to Murray State on Sunday.
Russ Smith scored 13 of Louisville’s first 17 points, while Dieng started slow with five straight misses before making four of his next five shots to record his third straight double-double and give Louisville some breathing room. The lead would grow to 13 before Memphis finally rallied.
”We cannot just start out slow. I don’t know what it is but we’ve got to fix that immediately if we’re going to be the team we want to be,” Barton said. ”I think we’ll fix it. It’s not too late. But we’ve just got to do it. I’m sick of talking about it, we’ve just got to do it.”