Scary start after a rough day, the University of Louisville basketball team arriving a day late because of Sunday evening fog at the Hartford airport. The late arrival forcing changes in the pre-game routine, the flight possibly affecting early execution and timing.
The players learning around noon their team was ranked No. 1 in the country. How should they be affected? Not a personal decision. Rick Pitino will not allow any distractions.
A hostile crowd of 16,200 UConn fans awaiting the Cards at the XL Hartford Center, reaching a fever pitch early, taunting the visitors, Pitino describing the student section as “rude and crude” afterwards. The UConn players feeding off their adrenaline, the student frenzy, Big Monday on ESPN, memories of past glories and visions of an upset.
All these distractions possible excuses for the early shakiness, resulting in seven straight missed gimmes from point blank range for Gorgui Dieng, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan. Peyton Siva going to the bench with two fouls in four minutes, missing the rest of the half. Two baskets off turnovers but not a single assist in that nightmarish first half.
Chaotic conditions, the perfect launching pad for Russ Smith to do his thing. Without his point guard partner around, Russ will penetrate time and time again with those impossible, but impossible-to-stop, shots going through the net. Fifteen points in that first half, 23 for the game. Keeping the Cardinals within six points at the intermission. Russ will gladly go with the team concept in the second 20 minutes, handing the leadership back over to Peyton Siva.
A fully rested Siva will bring some order, actually running some designed plays, finding his teammates with four actual assists while scoring nine points. He and Smith will make life miserable for the UConn guards, challenged on every dribble, every pass and every shot, running out of adrenaline, resulting in long scoring droughts.
With Siva running things, Chane Behanan could begin contributing again, making 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
Gorgui Dieng, playing dazed in the first half, was happy to see Siva again, too. While he had 16 rebounds for the night, he missed his first five shots and turned the ball over three times in the first half. He would contribute six points when they were needed in the second, his total for the game.
But it was Russ Smith, playing in his element, streaking through the chaos, leaving his mark on this win.