MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Houston prepared for Louisville’s Russ Smith, but the plans did little good.
Smith scored a career-best 42 points and the fifth-ranked Cardinals coasted to a 94-65 victory over the Cougars in the semifinals of the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament Friday night.
“Our goal was to try and stop him before he got a head full of steam and certainly he got a head full of steam,” said Houston’s Danuel House, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Cougars. “As a good player should, he knocked down the 3-ball. Once his three got going, we started just falling for the head fakes and not guarding the way we are capable of guarding, and just let him get going.”
Houston (17-16), the tournament’s sixth seed, was tied with the Cardinals at 16 in the first half, but went almost six minutes without a field goal. That resulted in a 21-point lead in the first half and the Cougars didn’t have an answer after that.
“Once we got behind double digits, we never could make a run at them,” Houston coach James Dickey said.
TaShawn Thomas and Brandon Morris scored 13 each for Houston (17-16) as the Cougars lost for only the second time in their last seven games.
Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell both added 12 for the Cardinals (28-5), the tournament’s second seed, who will face the winner of Friday’s second game between top-seeded Cincinnati and Connecticut. Stephan Van Treese grabbed 10 rebounds and connected on his first 3-pointer of the year in the closing minutes.
But Smith was the one who carried the Cardinals’ offense from the start.
“You can’t describe Russ’ game. That’s Russdiculous,” Hancock said of the nickname given to Smith by Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “The moves he makes, and the way he gets to the places he does on the floor, the shots he gets for himself and for his teammates is unbelievable.”
Smith shot 14 for 22 from the field and 5 for 7 from 3-point range. His final points came on a three-point play where he hit a reverse layup and converted the ensuing free throw.
Smith’s points were the highest by a player in a conference tournament so far this year, and the third most in a game in Louisville history.
To show Smith did more than just fire up shots, he added three assists to the night. After collecting his final points with about 6 minutes remaining, Smith immediately left the game where Pitino gave the senior guard a celebratory hug.
Pitino said he didn’t think his team was sharp defensively, so they needed to perform at a high level offensively.
“We got that from Russ,” Pitinio said. “He was brilliant, penetrating, passing, getting in the lane shooting the ball. . A scrawny kid from Brooklyn to a big, strong, tough, 42-point scorer is an amazing performance.”
Smith said when he came to Louisville, he wanted to win “as many games as possible” and get a championship, which the Cardinals earned last season.
“When you buy into a system that’s been successful, you’re going to always be successful,” Smith said. “I personally took that challenge to buy into a system, listen, pay attention and get better as a player. So, I’m extremely happy where I’m at.”
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