Russ Smith made the plays that mattered in the final two minutes as Louisville beat Cincinnati, 58-57.
CINCINNATI – Hold those Doug McDermott for national player of the year ballots. Advise the voters for the Wooden Award that the defining moments of this college basketball season are just starting to be played.
Tell them to take another look at the last 76 seconds that Russ Smith played for the University of Louisville at Cincinnati Saturday. My guess is you've already seen the dagger moment – the mid-range jump shot that Smith made with Titus Rubles flying into his face.
Smith was parked 12 to 15 feet from the basket. There were 2.2 seconds to play. Louisville trailed, 57-56, after coughing up every bit of a 10-point lead in the final nine minutes. Smith had missed seven of his first nine shots.
He did not miss the one that mattered. Moments like this are why Russ Smith came back for his senior season.
"It looked good all the way to me," said Terry Rozier, the U of L guard who passed the ball to Smith.
"Just do everything we can to win games," Smith said. "That's all that matters to me. I'm not here to impress anybody or get 30 balls and stuff. I'm just out here to win.
"Honestly it felt really good leaving my hands. I don't know if it looked good to you guys, but it honestly felt really good. It either would have been an air ball or it would have gone straight through the net."
This was no air ball. Louisville won, 58-57, pulling within a half-game of the Bearcats in the race to win the American Athletic Conference title. The Cards are now 23-4, 12-2 in the league.
Look for the Cardinals in the Top 10 next week. They've now beaten a Top 10 team on the road. They've won 10 of 11. They're positioning themselves for an advantageous seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But for Smith this was about more than simply fearlessly making a defining jump shot, the ball going in instead of bouncing away.
What Smith did over the final 76 seconds is play like the guy who has learned the lessons that he needed to learn from Rick Pitino when Smith decided to return for his senior season. Remember: Smith didn't have to be here. He could have gone out on top with a national title.
The lesson about not forcing shots. The lesson about making the basic, but effective pass. The lesson about playing with absolute poise when every possession becomes the most valuable possession of the game. The leadership lesson.
Smith showed that he doesn't have to score 21 points to help Louisville win an essential basketball game. He can do that when he only scores 10.
Smith's final jump shot doesn't matter without the two assists that Smith made on the two possessions that preceded the game winner.
Twice Smith waved Montrezl Harrell out to the key. He wanted a screen. Harrell provided the screen. Smith drove off the screen. Cincinnati tried to confuse Smith by blitzing him with a defender. Maybe the 2013 Russ Smith forces a jump shot. The 2012 Russ Smith definitely forces a jump shot.
"In that situation he might not have even had the ball last year," Montrezl Harrell said. "For him to come down and make the plays he did make. You'll get some crazy stuff out of Russ but toward the end he knew what to do with the ball."
Smith was not confused. He was determined to make the right plays. Smith did make the right plays. Smith confused the defense by slipping the basketball to Harrell on both plays.
Pick And Roll 101. The first basket cut Cincinnati's lead to 55-54. The second put Louisville ahead, 56-55.
"I wanted the ball in the last two minutes," Smith said. "I wanted to make some really good decisions down the stretch. I took that challenge.
"There comes a time in your life when you have to do something different in order to win. I played an all-around game. I tried to do everything in all facets of the game. I knew scoring wise I wasn't going to beat Cincinnati. It was going to have to be a team effort. I was going to have to find people.
"I think tonight I really matured as a player. I feel really good about the decisions I made down the stretch."
Yes, Smith made a silly reach toward Cincinnati guard Troy Caupain with 11.8 to play. There was a whistle. Caupain made two free throws. Cincinnati led, 57-56. The Bearcats were 11.8 from wiping all the suspense out of the AAC race.
But Smith erased that mistake with his game-winner.
It was the best closing stretch that Smith has played in his four-year career. He made the passes. He made the shot. Russ Smith said it was the first game-winning shot that he has made since high school.
Smith played 30 formidable minutes, leading the Cards with five assists but only one turnover. Smith is setting the example that Pitino wants. The Cardinals have not been reckless with the basketball. They only turned the ball over nine times. Mark it down as the sixth consecutive game with fewer than 10 turnovers for Louisville.
"I was an all-American last year, won a national championship and got all the accolades I needed," Smith said. "If they don't want to keep me on (the player of the year lists), they can take me off."
That would be some mistake. Smith is making the basic plays. He is making the unforgettable plays. Russ Smith is showing the world why he came back to the University of Louisville to play his senior season.