Louisville survives initial wave, Russ Smith puts SMU away

Fired up to insane levels, those 7,000 fans in the Moody Coliseum, some of them proclaiming it to be greatest game ever for the Southern Methodist basketball program, matching two top 20 teams.

Attracting Texas heavyweight fans, former President George W. Bush, first lady Laura Bush, first daughter Jenna Bush, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, along with former quarterback Troy Aikman, and Michael Finley, formerly of the San Antonio Spurs. A boisterous and intimidating atmosphere for the University of Louisville basketball team.

Not surprisingly Southern Methodist was 15-0 at home going into game, with decisive wins over Memphis, Cincinnati and UConn. And as Rick Pitino noted after UofL’s 84-71 win, the home crowd can be more than a little nasty.

Coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown, SMU was feeding on the frenzy and thirsting for a major upset. They were destined to get off to one of those unbelievable starts — and they did. The only question was how UofL would respond to the assault, whether this team, fresh from a loss at Memphis, would be able to fight its way back into the game or just get out of the way.

The Mustangs would stampede to a 26-12, rearing up for the knockout kick, get on down the road. Then a funny thing happened. UofL began hitting free throws — Montrelz Harrell, two for two, Russ Smith, two for two, and Chris Jones, two for two — with a Luke Hancock three-pointer sandwiched between the free throw line trips.

Hancock would add another three, Jones a three, and all a sudden Louisville owned a 27-26 lead after a miraculous three and a half minutes. The aforementioned question had been answered. Chris Jones, glad to get out of Memphis again, would score 13 of his 21 points during the first half, providing the offensive leadership Louisville needed to own a wide-eyed 32-30 lead at the half.

The other question to be answered was whether UofL could protect a lead over a ranked team, especially on the road, especially after one of the ugliest game starts in recent memory, during a season in which they had fizzled too often at clutch time.

Russ Smith would answer that question almost singlehandedly, scoring 22 of his 26 points after halftime, including six three-pointers.  He would hit three straight threes right after his alley-oop pass on the go-ahead dunk by Montrezl Harrell midway through the second half.

Each of his shots more incredulous than the last, tossing daggers from every conceivable angle, some of them ill-advised if Russ Smith wasn’t the one making them. UofL needing every single one of those shots to finally stifle the Mustangs. But at the end, Russ was throwing up on the sideline, fortunately into a trash can, admitting that the sight of his vomit made the situation even more volatile for him.

The final blow, this one for the fans, was delivered by Montrelz Harrell, raising his game total to 19 points, with another thunderous dunk just before the horn. The SMU fans, still hanging around, still making noise, unwilling to graciously accept the exclamation point, their partying reduced to booing at the end.