By GREG MENGELT
Russ Smith continued his domination of the Midwest Regional in Louisville’s 77-69 regional semifinal win over Oregon on Friday.
With backcourt mate Peyton Siva saddled with foul trouble and several Cardinals struggling with flu-like symptoms, Smith overcame both and took control with a game-high 31 points to help lead the Cardinals to within one win of the 10th Final Four appearance in school history.
“Unfortunately, Russ infected our entire team with a ridiculous cold,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We just had to get our guys through it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m terribly sick,” Smith admitted. “But I was pretty sick where it affected my conditioning at a point. [Pitino] just kept telling me to fight through it.”
Now, the top-seeded Cardinals are through to the next round. The Cards will face either No. 2 seed Duke or No. 3 Michigan State on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium with a trip to Atlanta on the line. The time of Sunday’s regional final had not been determined at press time.
Smith, who now has an NCAA Tournament-high 81 points in three games, hit nine of his 14 field-goal attempts, went 12-of-14 from the free-throw line and answered every Oregon challenge.
“Russ, he’s a great basketball player,” Louisville junior center Gorgui Dieng said. “So any time we struggle, any time I grab the ball [off the boards], he’s the first one I’m looking for. Give him the ball because once he has the ball in his hands, he’s going to score, get a foul or both.”
“When I’m on the court, I see little spaces and I try to get to the spot before the defender does,” Smith explained. “I talk to [Pitino] a lot about where I can find any gaps or where can get good looks on the court, what could I do to help the team win. Coach always gives me the answers and I just try to go out there and find gaps.”
Thanks to Smith and Kevin Ware, who had 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting, the Cardinals built an 18-point lead three times. Luke Hancock knocked down a 3-pointer with 9:02 left and Louisville seemed in control with a 66-48 lead.
However, Oregon went on a 12-2 run to cut the deficit to 68-60. Smith came back with a runner in the lane for his 27th and 28th points.
Another four unanswered points got the Ducks as close as they had been since the first eight minutes of the contest at 70-64 with 5:09 remaining.
A Ware running bank shot put Louisville back up 72-64. Smith then fed Chane Behanan for a dunk and knocked down three free throws to put away 12th-seeded Oregon.
Dieng finished with 10 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots, two assists and two steals for the Cards.
“Coming into this game, we knew rebounding would be a big factor,” Dieng said. “We just try to keep them off the glass and try to dominate the glass.”
Hancock and Behanan added seven points apiece. Siva had just four points and three assists.
E.J. Singler led Oregon with 15 points and six rebounds in his final game as a Duck. Arsalan Kazemi, who averaged 10 boards in his four-year career, added 11 points and 12 rebounds.
Smith opened the scoring on a fast break, and after a Tony Woods free throw got Oregon on the board, and Dieng ignited an early 6-0 run with an offensive putback.
A deep Singler 3 got Oregon within 10-7 just after Siva picked up his second foul and went to the bench, where he’d stay for the final 15 minutes and 19 seconds of the first half.
Louisville responded to Siva’s foul trouble and the Ducks’ quick surge with a 14-1 run that included 12 combined points from Smith and Ware. Smith capped 10 unanswered Cardinal points by going coast-to-coast after a steal for a 24-8 lead with 11:06 to play in the half.
Freshman Dominic Artis, who had 10 of his 12 points in the first half, kept the Ducks in the game with back-to-back 3s to cut the deficit to 26-16. Oregon later pulled within 38-29 with 2:06 to go on a 3 from Singler, who added nine points in the first half.
“[I don’t] feel like we put our best foot forward in the first half,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “[We] dug ourselves a pretty big hole and were able to come back.”
Louisville answered again as Ware banked in a runner, then Smith hit a layup and assisted on a Wayne Blackshear 3-pointer with 37 seconds to go to give Louisville a 45-31 halftime lead.
The Cards shot 60.7 percent (17-of-28) from the floor in the opening half.
Ware hit all four of his first-half shots.
“Kevin plays so hard,” Smith said. “He just wants to do good and contribute. He was very focused on the game.”
“He was terrific tonight,” Pitino said of Ware. “Peyton didn’t have it tonight. He’s been sick.”
Louisville had runs of 13-5 and 12-2 in the second half, but Smith responded each time.
“He made big plays,” Altman said of Smith. “When you let a good team like Louisville be the aggressor, they’re tough to beat.”
“We were short of gas tonight without Russ Smith,” Pitino said.