Russ Smith was joined by his parents and high school teammates on Senior Day at Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is the way a powerful, improving and happy University of Louisville senior class said goodbye:
By pounding Connecticut as badly as the Huskies have been pounded in 22 years. By having their leading scorer (Russ Smith) share the basketball as marvelously as the ball can be shared.
By turning the Huskies upside down and inside out with unrelenting defensive pressure, forcing 22 UConn turnovers three days after forcing 23 against SMU. By getting 13 rebounds from Stephan Van Treese, four three-point field goals from Luke Hancock, 14 flawless minutes from Tim Henderson and 13 Russ Smith assists (on a day when he took two shots).
Louisville 81, Connecticut 48.
Don't get the wrong idea. It wasn't that close.
"With the defense playing the way it did tonight, that was pretty special," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. "We don't turn the ball over much. If we can play that stifling defense, we are a tough team."
"We're being more aggressive in our press, wearing people down," Hancock said. "There were a lot of games when we just let people bring the ball down the floor. That's not us."
Sometimes Senior Night doesn't turn out the way it's scripted. Check the video from two years ago. The celebration got canceled after the Cardinals lost to South Florida.
You knew that was not going to happen Saturday in the KFC Yum! Center, not even against a Top 20 opponent. Not with this group of seniors. This group has done everything the right way.
"This group had come too far," said Smith's father, Russ Sr. "Russ and I talked about it (Friday night). He said, ‘Dad, I'm going to go out and get those assists.' I said, ‘Good.' My son just wants to win. All these kids do."
Pitino gave his players a similar message. Smith listened. So did Van Treese, Hancock and Henderson. They usually have.
The Cardinals made Connecticut look like the Northeast Connecticut Culinary School. The last time UConn was beaten by 33 was 1992 by St. John's. The last time the Huskies lost by more than 33 was 1977 at Syracuse – and UConn is not a chump program.
The Huskies have now lost seven games this season. Both losses to Louisville were by double-figures. None of the other five defeats were.
The only thing the Cards lost Saturday was the post-game coin flip to determine the top seed in the AAC Tournament. They shared the title with Cincinnati. But the Bearcats will play in Memphis as the top seed. Louisville will be seeded second, which might not be a punishment because it could keep U of L from playing the home team until the championship game. Louisville will start on Thursday afternoon against either Rutgers or South Florida.
As for Senior Day, I'll call the roll the same way it was called during the pre-game ceremony. Tim Henderson took a 15-foot jumper on Louisville's second possession. He made it. He did not shoot again. Perfect. He exits his home arena by making his final shot.
"As a freshman coming in you don't know much at all about the college game because it's so different," Henderson said. "Just staying here, the four years I spent here were terrific for me, in getting better and becoming more of a man as well."
Van Treese played the way he will have to play for the Cardinals to advance through the NCAA bracket. UConn does not have an Emeka Okafor or Hasheem Thabeet inside this season. Those are the kinds of teams that Van Treese needs to punish. He punished the Huskies.
His six points were a bonus. What mattered were the 13 rebounds that Van Treese delivered, eight on the offensive end. He went to the glass and grabbed the ball twice before laying it in during one flurry in the second half. That burst of determination brought Van Treese's father, Dan, out of his seat, proudly exchanging high fives with everybody sitting within 15 feet.
"It's crazy to think it's all over, but I'm excited for this post-season," Van Treese said. "I'm happy for the way all four of us played tonight. I was a little nervous, but mostly about my speech."
Hancock was Hancock. Smart. Fearless. Efficient. Deadly from the three-point line, making four of seven while scoring 16 points. Hancock has made 11 three-point field goals in Louisville's last four games. The Cardinals will need that as sudden-death basketball begins.
The Cardinals will need his consistency in March. His ability to shoot gives Montrezl Harrell more room to maneuver without a double team. There was evidence on Saturday. Harrell had 20 points and 11 boards.
"We're confident," Hancock said. "We think we can beat anybody on any given night. It's a great way to go out. The fans have really embraced me. I feel like I'm at home here."
Then there was Smith. He's never a footnote. The crowd stood for him when he was introduced before the game. You knew they would.
Smith made the two best moves of the day. The first was inviting six pals from his high school team at Archbishop Malloy High School in New York City to attend the game. They drove nearly 750 miles to share the moment with Smith – and he brought them on the floor with him before the game. He extended the invitation a month ago and kept insisting that they join him.
Who said Russ Smith doesn't care about his teammates? Silly.
Smith was not finished. Several days after an anonymous NBA scout dismissed Smith's future as an NBA player because of concerns that Smith did not make his teammates better, Smith made every Cardinal on the court better.
In his 127th game as a Cardinal, Smith delivered a career high 13 assists – four to Harrell, two to Hancock, two to Chris Jones, two to Wayne Blackshear, two to Terry Rozier and one to Henderson. He took two shots. He made one. He scored three points, a season low. He enjoyed the game as much as he enjoyed any game this season.
"This is not the first time I've had double-digit assists," Smith said. "I'm averaging close to five (4.8). I'm one of the leaders in assists in the conference. I don't know why anyone would say that about me.
"But that's his opinion. This is the world we live in. I'll just have to keep getting better and I'll move on."
Now this group of seniors moves on, after giving Louisville fans one more moment to savor.