By Noah Allison
The Cardinals of this year have needed a spark, a moment where magic is made possible and adopted as a part of the game plan. On Saturday in Cincinnati it finally came, with 2.2 seconds left senior guard Russ Smith hit the game-winning jumper to seal the deal at 58-57.
Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell led the Cards with 21 points and ten rebounds in his double-double effort. Freshman guard Terry Rozier was second with his 11 points, also contributing six rebounds and two assists. Smith overall had 10 points, five assists and three steals and rebounds.
For the number 11 Cardinals, now 23-4, beating the number seven Bearcats gave them their first win against a ranked opponent on the season. All year long the story of the season has been the Cardinals beating the teams they were supposed, and failing to win the marquis match-ups.
“It was a great win for us, like Connecticut, like Kentucky this was a very difficult crowd to battle,” Pitino said.
The Cards jumped out to a 21-9 lead mid-way through the first half. The Louisville defense stepped up throughout the game forcing clutch and timely turnovers and keeping the Bearcats out of the paint. UC hit 16 of 56 shots, shooting at 28.6 percent through the game.
“I gave them the same speech today that I gave them before Wichita State last year. The better defensive team will win the game tonight,” Pitino said. “
Louisville shot at 40 percent through the game and saw senior forward Luke Hancock and red-shirt freshman Mangok Mathiang foul out. The game was gritty, the crowd was rowdy and it started to have a familiar feel to the four losses the Cardinals have suffered.
The Cards saw their 21-9 lead dissipate and their second half lead of 47-37 turn into a 53-51 deficit. In the last moments it seemed as if everything could go wrong for the Cards again, but alas, they won.
Without the game savvy of Hancock available for the last shot it is undoubtedly a moment of growth for this team. Smith made plays that he may not have made in the past.
“This is my first game winning shot that I can remember,” Smith said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever hit a bigger shot than this. I’ve always been clumsy with the ball or done something ignorant with the ball. I’m just happy down the stretch I was able to make plays. Not the shot, but finding Montrezl two times down the court to keep us in it. That was the maturity I was looking for when I decided to come back.”
Pitino’s Cardinals have now won six games in a row. The energy level is rising and the spirit that this team needs is resonating through The Ville. The facial hair of Louisville shall continue growing for another day.
Russ Smith is a hero, but this team won as a unit. When heads hung, they picked each other up. When somebody needed to make a play, the play was made. For the first time all year, Cardinal fans saw what they’ve seen in the past. A team that in the end; wins.
“Luke, one of our captains, before the game said that we are going to face adversity. But we have to stick together no matter what happens,” Rozier said. “And that’s what we did.”
Photo by Austin Lassell / The Louisville Cardinal