When Duke and Louisville play in the Midwest Regional final Sunday, the stakes will be higher than they were in November.
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) – The first time Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski lined up for a game with a trip to the Final Four on the line, their teams delivered what many believe is the greatest college basketball game ever played. Kentucky vs. Duke, 1992, East Regional Final in Philadelphia. This time of year they play it on ESPN Classic every 35 seconds.
The stakes will be the same Sunday when Pitino and Louisville meet Krzyzewski and Duke in the Midwest Regional final at Lucas Oil Stadium. The game tips at 5:05 p.m.
Their players made it happen Friday night. Louisville defeated Oregon, 77-69, in the first regional semifinal, and Duke earned its spot by defeating Michigan State, 71-61, in the finale.
The teams played Nov. 24 in The Bahamas. Duke won, 76-71, getting 14 or more points from five different players, but Louisville was without center Gorgui Dieng, who broke his wrist earlier in tournament.
That game was for the championship of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. This one will be for a spot in the NCAA Final Four, which will be played April 6-8 in Atlanta. Battle 4 Atlantis to Battle for Atlanta What a difference three letters makes.
Russ Smith, battling a severe cold, led Louisville with 31 points. Smith shot 14 free throws -- and made a dozen. In fact, Smith made two more free throws than the entire Oregon team. He has scored 81 points in the Cards' three NCAA Tournament games.
"When I'm on the court, I just see little spaces and I try to get to that spot before another defender does," Smith said "And if I can beat them to the spot before they slide, that's how I create some contact.
"And I always try and create contact, because I feel like if I get to the free throw line, that's the highest percentage shot that I can have, and that's particularly my main goal."
"He was magnificent," CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said. "He can finish through contact or go over it."
The knockout blow came in the final 10 ½ minutes. Peyton Siva drove the left side of the circle and made a pull-up three-pointer to put the Cards ahead 59-46. After a quick Oregon score, Louisville forced the Ducks to call a timeout by scoring the next seven points – two on free throws by Russ Smith, two on a Montrezl Harrell dunk off a Gorgui Dieng pass and then a three-pointer by Luke Hancock from the left corner.
The Cards led 66-48 with only 8:57 to play. Not that Oregon quit. The Ducks did not. They outscored the Cards 12-2 over the next 2:45.
But Russ Smith – who else? – stopped the Oregon momentum with a driving eight-foot bank shot.
"He made big plays," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "I think when we got it down to 6, I'm not sure if he or (Kevin) Ware got to the rim and got one in, but one of those two guys. Ware hurt us also. So, again, they're a talented basketball team."
Oregon rallied one more time, cutting the lead to 70-64. But Louisville scored the game's next six points.
Kevin Ware was the Cards' second-leading scorer with 11 points. Dieng had 10 – along with nine rebounds and four blocks.
With the victory, Rick Pitino is now 11-0 in regional semifinal games.
The Cards continued their dominant play in the tournament. Their combined margin of victory in their first three NCAA Tournament games compares favorably with recent NCAA champs.
This is where they stand: Rick Pitino's team has won its first three games by a combined margin of 65 points.
That's more than Kentucky last season (43). It's more than UConn in 2011 (47). It's more than any NCAA champ since North Carolina, which won its first three games by 78 in 2009. Louisville has trailed for only 4 minutes and 29 seconds combined in its three wins.