Russ Smith scored a career-high 24 points to lead the Cardinals to a 95-87 victory over Memphis in front of 22,733 Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.
"I can't put it into words, it was just one of those days…it was my kind of night," Smith said afterward.
The 6-foot sophomore guard hit 6 of 16 shots and 10 of 12 free throws, while also recording a career-best seven steals as UofL, which is ranked fourth in both national polls, improved to 10-0.
Six other Cards – led by Gorgui Dieng's 14 points – scored in double figures as UofL's depth wore down the Tigers (5-4), who were also a preseason Top 10 team nationally.
"In the second half they couldn't keep up with us," said Dieng, who also grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked six shots in nearly 40 minutes of play.
Junior point guard Peyton Siva added 13 points and nine assists, while junior Rakeem Buckles had 12 points and six rebounds in his second game back from a knee injury and his first start of the season. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, coming off the bench, added 11 points apiece while freshman forward Chane Behanan, also coming off the bench, tallied 10.
"Memphis is a big-time dribble team and we have been struggling with that and Russ and Rakeem are a little bit better in that situation, we just wanted to get off to a good start," Pitino said.
In fact Smith didn't know he was going to get his third career start until just before tip-off. Then after the Briarwood, N.Y. native, who played his high school ball in New York City before playing a year at a Connecticut prep school, was introduced as being from "the Big Apple" he was given some extra incentive by Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
"I told him, ‘You're representing 9 million people, you cannot let us down,' and he started laughing hysterically," Pitino recalled afterward.
And although Pitino has publicly been hot-and-cold on Smith of late – when asked to comment on Smith's play after UofL's victory over IUPUI 10 days ago the coach replied, "I don't want to," – he was the apple of his eye after taming the Tigers.
"Russ Smith was fantastic," Pitino said. "He's a terrific player, he has no fear."
Smith proved that 18 seconds into the game when he was freed up off a back pick, then converted a feed from Siva for a layup. Siva followed with a layin of his own moments later before Smith hit a pull-up jumper to stake the Cards to a 6-0 lead. UofL seemed somewhat tentative offensively early, but the one player who wasn't afraid to shoot was (surprise!) Russ Smith.
Smith, who came in averaging 7.1 points per game, banked in a three-pointer to put UofL up 11-6 at the 14:27 mark. Ten seconds later Siva picked up his second foul and went to the bench.
That's when Smith started to carry the Cards.
After Memphis took a 12-11 lead Smith hit two free throws to put Louisville back in front. Will Barton – who scored 28 points and snared 16 rebounds – then hit two free throws for the Tigers before Smith hit two more to give UofL the lead for good.
Smith's steal and dunk moments later increased the Cards' lead and gave him a new career-high (his previous one was 12) less than 10 minutes into the game.
A short time later Smith hit 2 of 3 free throws, after he was fouled while shooting a three-pointer, to give Louisville its largest lead to that point (25-18).
Although UofL missed 16 of its first 21` shots, the Cards connected on 12 of their first 15 free throws.
Louisville's lead grew to nine a couple of times late in the half, after baskets by Dieng, before Behanan's two free throws with 1:51 left gave the Cards a 40-30 lead. He hit two more with 4.7 seconds left in the half to put UofL up 42-32 at intermission.
Louisville, which played 11 players in the first half, shot just 28.2 percent (11 of 39) from the field but did knock down 19 of 24 free throws (79.2 percent) in the first 20 minutes.
"A lot of times statistics can be a little misleading," Pitino said. "When we were in man defense in the first half we don't look at it like 28 percent from the field, we see it more as shooting 45 percent because we fouled them, and the same goes for them, we were fouling each other."
The Cards increased that lead to 13 early in the second half when Kuric connected on a three-pointer from his corner, before Memphis made a run. The Tigers, led by penetrating point guard Joe Jackson (who finished with 22 points) tied the score at 55-all, then took the lead on Jackson's old-fashioned three-point play with 11 minutes to play.
The Cards came back immediately.
"That's pretty much been our MO the last two years," Pitino said. "Every time a team gets close we respond."
Buckles hit 1 of 2 free throws, then knocked down a three-pointer after a Memphis miss.
The Tigers tied the game four more times, but Louisville took the lead for good on a pair of free throws from Behanan with 6:27 remaining. That started an 8-0 run that was capped by Kuric's two-hand stuff off an alley-oop from Russ Smith.
UofL shot 54.8 percent (17 for 31) in the second half to finish at 40 percent (28 of 70) for the game. The Cards also connected on 32 of 40 (80 percent) free throws.
Meanwhile Memphis shot 53.1 percent (17 of 32) in the second half and 41.3 percent (26 for 63) for the game. However the Tigers missed 14 of their 43 free throws (67.4 percent) and had 17 turnovers that the Cards converted into 24 points.
"It just comes down to really two things," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "(One) was turnovers. They had 24 points off of turnovers to our 16. We didn't take care of the ball in some areas, and (two was) free throw shooting. That's the bottom line, nothing else to pin-point and it's really black and white there."
Meanwhile to Pitino the renew of the rivalry with the Tigers was very much black and white.
"It was exciting to have Memphis back, we have had some great games with them," Pitino said. "I just hope the Big East gets smart and allows them to come into the league. We got hurt big time (by the defections of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC), and we need Memphis. Memphis doesn't need us, we need Memphis."
Louisville next hosts the College of Charleston, which is 9-1, at 9 p.m. Tuesday night.