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March 21, 2014

Smith rescues Cards from brink of upset




ORLANDO-- It had been a rare long night for a battered and frustrated Russ Smith, but the plucky senior guard provided the spark that brought Louisville off the ropes and enabled the Cardinals to avoid what would have been a monumental upset by turning back Manhattan 71-64 in the Midwest Regional Thursday night and Friday morning.

With fourth-seeded UofL (30-5) trailing the gritty and well-drilled Jaspers 58-55 with 3 1/2 minutes remaining, Smith drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to tie the score at 58 and a few moments later fed Luke Hancock for a pair of treys as the Cards closed out the game with a 16-8 run.

"If Russ and Luke didn't hit those threes down the stretch, it would have been ugly for us," center Stephan Van Treese said.

Louisville advanced to face Saint Louis (27-6) at 2:45 p.m. EDT Saturday, with the winner securing a spot in the Sweet Sixteen in Indianapolis next weekend. The Billikens rallied from a 16-point deficit to edge North Carolina State 83-80 in overtime.

Sitting in their locker room in the Amway Center, you could almost see the Cards exhale with a huge sigh of relief to have dodged their third first-round exit in the last five years.

Masiello, a former assistant to UofL coach Rick Pitino, knew the Cards and their system so well that he was calling out their plays to his players from the sideline.

"It was very frustrating because he knew everything we were going to run," Smith said. "He knew the counter play and the counter to the counter. We played the best we could, but Manhattan knows us and they anticipated everything we were going to do. They played a perfect game, there's no other way to script it out. They basically won the game."

Except that they didn't, thanks largely to Smith and Hancock, along with a helping hand from Montrezl Harrell, who had a key block in the final minutes despite playing with four fouls, and Wayne Blackshear, who got a late basket on an assist from Chris Jones.

Thursday was rough for Smith, but he was a changed man when midnight and Friday morning came (tipoff had been at 10:32 p..m.). Before hitting his big trifecta, he had missed his previous three, was 2-of-8 overall, had committed six turnovers and basically looked out of sorts.

After Hancock's two free throws with 1:53 left gave UofL the lead for good at 62-60, Smith found the senior forward in the right corner and then the left wing for a pair of threes that wrapped up the victory.

"I got open, found a gap in the zone after 36 1/2 minutes of Manhattan playing stifling defense and I was able to get a pretty good look," Smith said. "I wasn't trying to do too much, but I also didn't want to lose, so it's tough to balance that out, especially when there's a lot on the line. But for me to knock it down after Manhattan did a great job on me defensively, I'm just thankful and happy to win it."

Smith played the second half with his left thumb and wrist taped after he jammed it in the first half, but he said that was just one of several ailments.

"Going all way back to SMU game, it has been a ridiculous three weeks for me, but as long as we win, that's all I care about," he said. "I jammed my thumb pretty bad, but that's one of many minor injuries -- little knee bump, bad ankle, everything hurts."

Despite his woes, Smith finished as UofL's leading scorer with 18 points, while Hancock had 16. The Cards shot a season-low 36.4 percent, but they made 27-of-35 free throws, outrebounded Manhattan (28-5) 42-31 and got 22 points off 15 turnovers by the Jaspers.

"Russ' three gave everyone a spark and things went pretty smoothly from then on," Van Treese said. "Russ was kind of in a drought for most of the night, which is never like Russ and that messed with our offense.

"We haven't really had a lot of games this year that were this close and we had to pull it out. I feel we needed that and it showed we can come back like last year's team when we were down. If we won by one point the rest of the tournament, I wouldn't care."


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