The University of Louisville bounced back from its listless loss at Providence, where the Cards suffered their worst setback in nearly three years, with a double-digit defeat of DePaul on Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.
Russ Smith scored a game-high 25 points, Chris Smith tallied a career-high 20 points and Gorgui Dieng, who was in a neck brace before and after the game, added another double-double (13 points, 14 rebounds) as the Cards pulled away late to beat the Blue Demons 76-59 in front of 21,223 fans.
"We came together as a team. Everybody stepped up and played their roles," said junior point guard Peyton Siva, who finished with four points, seven assists and six turnovers.
Louisville (14-4, 2-3 in the Big East), which came in ranked 14th in The Associated Press Top 25 and 15th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, was coming off its fourth loss in its last five games – a 90-57 frying by the Friars, who were picked 15th in the conference preseason poll. The Cards entered Saturday tied with DePaul (10-7, 1-4), the 16th pick in the Big East preseason rankings, for 12th-place in the conference standings. They rebounded from that Providence pummeling, UofL's worst loss since going down 90-57 at Notre Dame in February of 2009, by shooting 50.9 percent from the field against the Blue Demons and outscoring them 42-18 in the paint.
"That's what we needed," Chris Smith said of the loss to the Friars. "We had to get hit in the head to realize what's in front of us."
The Cards, who also had a players-only meeting in the wake of that Providence defeat, looked inspired early against DePaul despite not having leading scorer Kyle Kuric (sprained ankle) in the lineup.
"At the meeting we said, ‘We have to fix this right now, because we can't lose any more, losing is not an option,'" Dieng said.
Not playing was not an option for Dieng, who arrived at the Yum! Center on Saturday wearing a neck brace ("He couldn't even move," UofL coach Rick Pitino said).
"I said whatever I need to do to play I'll do," said Dieng, who indicated he injured his neck in a recent practice.
He was given an injection and was good to go at game time, though.
Dieng's dunk 1:10 into the game gave the Cards a lead (at 4-2) that they wouldn't relinquish. Chris Smith followed with a three-pointer before DePaul's Jeremiah Kelly answered with one of his own.
Russ Smith then ignited an 11-0 run by Louisville with seven points – off two layups and three free throws.
He finished the first half with 16 points as Louisville led 39-30 at intermission. Smith was a key reason (although freshman Kevin Ware's energy off the bench didn't hurt either) why the Cards outscored the Blue Demons 14-4 in points off turnovers and 24-10 in points in the paint in the first 20 minutes.
"Our offense was Russ Smith in the middle of a playground in Queens," Pitino said. "I think the tempo of the game, the way the game was played, (suited him). The less organized game the better he is.
"We had to play that way because DePaul is always trapping. So you have to flash, look opposite and go backdoor. You have to rely on your basketball instincts."
"I was very comfortable," Russ Smith said the type of pace that was played, especially in the first half. "Defensively I took a step back the last two games and I didn't like that feeling. (Today) I just wanted to do everything in my power to win."
Russ Smith's reverse layup with 9:49 to play gave UofL a 54-40 lead before the Blue Demons made it interesting.
DePaul, which hit five three-pointers in the first half to keep it close, hit three three-pointers during an 11-2 run that cut the Cards' lead to five (56-51) with 7:11 to play.
Chris Smith hit two free throws, then Kelly hit a jumper to make it 58-53. Louisville, though, scored seven straight points. Siva's steal and dunk capped the spurt.
Brandon Young's three-pointer made it 67-59 with 3:08 remaining before UofL scored the final nine points of the game on a huge Chris Smith dunk off an alley-oop from Russ Smith, two free throws from Chris Smith, a Dieng dunk and a three-pointer from Rakeem Buckles.
"We didn't play great, but we played really, really hard," Pitino said.
Russ Smith finished 10 for 22 from the field, including 0 of 7 from three-point range, and 5 for 8 from the free throw line. He added six assists, five rebounds and four steals.
"All I want Russ to do is play defense hard," Pitino said. "Everything else you've got to let him go. If he started evaluating what's a good shot and what is a bad shot you take away his skill level. A normal person goes 0 for 3 or 0 for 4, you may think of passing, it may cross your mind. If you watched him tonight do you think it ever crossed his mind? So all I wanted him to do was play hard defensively and just let him do his thing."
Chris Smith finished 6 for 9 from the field, including 4 of 5 from three-point range. He was also 4 of 4 from the foul line.
"I think Chris was trying to do things he can't do (in recent games)," Pitino said. "He'll try to dribble the ball and not take the shot. He's used to doing what Kyle does, moving to open areas, getting the shot, going backdoor and he's a good jumper. Before he was trying to do things off the bounce that just weren't his thing. Tonight he did things that were very good."
Dieng finished 5 for 9 from the field and was 3 of 3 from the free throw line. He also blocked four shots.
"We didn't have much of a bench so we needed him to play well," Pitino said. "And he did."
One other thing the Cards did Saturday, Pitino hopes at least, is put behind them any lingering leftovers from the Providence loss.
"That was the best Providence has played in five years," Pitino said. "We played terrible so you give them credit and move on, it's one game. The effort has been phenomenal the whole season, the execution hasn't. We've played incredibly hard all but one game, it happens, you move on."
Louisville now moves on to face Marquette in a quick turnaround with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at 3:30 p.m. Monday afternoon.
"Our goal is to win every home game and win two road games, that's our goal," Pitino said.