INDIANAPOLIS — Even a nasty cold can’t stop Russ Smith.
With his teammates struggling with the virus he gave them and top-seeded Louisville facing its toughest test of the postseason, Russ put on his best show yet. He matched his career high of 31 points and the Cardinals proved they can win close games, too, beating Oregon 77-69 on Friday night.
“Without Russ Smith, we couldn’t win,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who improved to 11-0 in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Louisville (32-5) moves on to play the winner of Michigan State-Duke on Sunday, hoping to advance to the Final Four for the second straight year.
Louisville has been nearly untouchable during its 13-game winning streak, beating opponents by an average of 17 points. And it looked as if this was going to be more of the same when Smith outscored Oregon 9-8 through the first 10 minutes.
But the 12th-seeded Ducks (28-9) made a game of it late.
After Louisville went up 66-48 with 9:01 left, Oregon made six straight field goals to close to 70-64 — the closest anyone’s been to the Cardinals in weeks. But Kevin Ware scored on a layup and Chane Behanan threw down a monstrous dunk to put the game out of reach.
Ware finished with 11, topping his previous career best by one, and Gorgui Dieng had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
“Russ Smith is a talented young man. They’ve got a lot of talented players,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “When he got going, we didn’t have an answer.”
E.J. Singler’s 15 points led five Ducks in double figures. But Damyean Dotson had an off night, held without a field goal until five minutes were gone in the second half, and Oregon could never recover from its poor start.
Early foul trouble didn’t help, with Johnathan Loyd picking up his third before halftime and Dominic Artis and Carlos Emory playing the last six minutes of the half with two.
“If it wasn’t for the beginning, it would have been a completely different game,” Loyd said. “We just came out, we weren’t ready and we got smacked. If we were playing the way were playing in the second half the whole game, it’s a completely different story.”
The Cardinals were barely tested in either of their first two games in the NCAA tournament, beating North Carolina A&T by 31 and Colorado State by 26. They set an NCAA tournament record with 20 steals against A&T, outrebounded one of the country’s best rebounding teams in Colorado State and left both teams with ugly shooting lines.
But that hacking cough that Smith has had the last few days is making its way around the Louisville team, and it was clear from the start this wasn’t going to be another juggernaut performance by the Cardinals.
Peyton Siva spent the last 15:19 of the first half on the bench after picking up his second foul, and Louisville wasn’t nearly as stingy on defense as it’s been. The Cardinals (13) actually had more turnovers than the Ducks (12), and Oregon is only the third team to shoot 44 percent or better during Louisville’s winning streak.
“We’ve been a great defensive team — not a good one, a great one — all season,” Pitino said. “Tonight, their quickness was so good, all it did was wear us out defensively. But we had Russ Smith and Kevin really bail us out of some situations that could have gone either way.”
After Siva went out, Smith hit a 3 to spark a 14-3 run that put Louisville up 24-8.
“We really dug ourselves a big hole,” Singler said. “We tried to figure back as much as possible, but Louisville’s a really, really good team. They just played better than us today.”
But the Ducks aren’t a team that gives in. After losing six of their last 11 regular-season games, the Ducks have been on a tear. They won the Pac-12 tournament, then upset Oklahoma State and Saint Louis last weekend.
After Luke Hancock’s 3 capped a 12-2 run that put Louisville up 66-48, the Ducks would make six straight field goals. When Dotson knocked down a jumper with 5:12 remaining, it got Oregon within six, the closest it had been since early in the first half.
Closest anyone had been to Louisville since the Big East tournament, actually.
“We’ve been in that position before this year,” Singler said.
But part of what makes the Cardinals so imposing is their maturity and their options, which seem endless. Instead of panicking, the Cardinals regrouped and regained control, and the Ducks never threatened again.
“I told our guys, ‘We don’t have it tonight. It’s obvious,'” Pitino said. “We’re winning with offense and that’s great, but we’ve got to start digging in and getting stops. We did it at the end.”
Ware brought a halt to the Oregon run with his layup and then came Behanan’s dunk. Smith made a pair of free throws, and the only question was whether the Ducks could get back within single digits before the buzzer.
“(Smith) made big plays,” Altman said. “When you let a good team like Louisville be the aggressor, they’re tough to beat.”
Even with colds.
“Coach has been telling me to fight through it, fight through it, dig in. My teammates as well,” Smith said. “We’re fighting through it and just doing whatever we can to get a win.”