LEXINGTON, Ky. – Louisville coach Rick Pitino rattled off Russ Smith’s stats, one more impressive than the next.
Then he paused and peered over his glasses.
“But he came up lame without a rebound. So we’re very disappointed with that. We’re going to do drills in the ballroom with Russ rebounding tonight,” Pitino said before he gave up, letting a smile cross his face.
“Russ is a really special player,” the coach continued. “He said he was like a blender tonight, just moved around and moved around.”
Pay attention, No. 1s. This is how it’s done.
Smith scored 23 points and had eight of Louisville’s NCAA tournament-record 20 steals, and the Cardinals had 67 deflections as they demolished North Carolina A&T 79-48 on Thursday night. Peyton Siva added eight assists, four steals and six points for top-seeded Louisville, which limited the Aggies to 42 per cent shooting and harassed them into 27 turnovers.
“I told Rick that I’m pulling for him to win the national championship,” A&T coach Cy Alexander said. “He’s got a Final Four-quality team. They made shots and they’re as good as anybody in the country when they’re going.”
And the Big East champions (30-5) sure had it going Thursday night.
No 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1 and, unlike that Southern-Gonzaga squeaker that ended shortly before the Aggies and Cardinals tipped off, this one was never even a contest.
Oh, the Cardinals let A&T (20-17) hang around for a few minutes, giving the small handful of Aggies fans enough time to take photos of the scoreboard while the margin was still respectable. (OK, it was 6-4. Considering the Aggies had never even won an NCAA tournament game until Tuesday night, it was as good as a lead.)
Once Louisville stepped on the gas, however, this one was done. It was the 11th straight win for the Cardinals, who will play eighth-seeded Colorado State on Saturday for a spot in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
“We just tried to get after it,” Siva said.
Amped up at seeing Rupp Arena — home of archrival Kentucky — awash in red, the Cardinals silenced whatever questions there might have been about them deserving the No. 1 overall seed with a performance as impressive as it was unrelenting.
Louisville shot better than 57 per cent, and the only players who didn’t score were the benchwarmers who came in at the end of the game. The Cardinals scored on oh, so sweet finger rolls and rim-rattling dunks. They scored on layups and knocked down short jumpers. They hit from 3-point range and converted three-point plays.
And where to even begin with those guards.
“Russ and Peyton, they had so many deflections it was ridiculous,” said Stephan Van Treese, who led the Cardinals with seven rebounds. “They played great.”
Siva and Smith are arguably the best backcourt tandem in the country and, if they continue playing this way, Louisville will have a good shot at improving on last year’s trip to the Final Four.
With the game already out of hand, Siva and Smith combined for a 13-0 run that put Louisville up 67-37. Smith scored the first two baskets, Siva answered with two of his own and then Smith drilled a 3 from the corner. They finished it off with Siva scooping up a loose ball at halfcourt and dishing to Smith.
In the first half, they may as well have been playing keep-away for as much as they let the Aggies have the ball.
Gorgui Dieng blocked a jumper by Bruce Beckford, and Louisville got the rebound. Luke Hancock made a 3 at the other end, and North Carolina A&T didn’t even have time to set its offence before the Cardinals harassed Jeremy Underwood into a turnover. After a quick layup by Smith, the Aggies had the ball for just a couple of seconds before Siva snatched it away from Jean Louisme. Underwood quickly fouled Montrezl Harrell, who made the second of two shots.
Siva let the Aggies get near halfcourt before pouncing again for another steal. Smith missed the layup, and the Aggies managed to hold onto the ball long enough to not only take a shot, but get a 3-pointer from Adrian Powell.
Had Pitino let them play longer — he pulled them with about seven minutes left — the score would have been even more lopsided.
“The second half of the season, Coach has been on me about scouting reports, and that’s the only thing I was waiting for,” Smith said. “What do I have to do to contribute to the team? What’s the team goals? What do we have to do to get to the next round? That’s it. … To go out there and get a win in the first round is all we cared about. Survive and advance.”
Now, Louisville might make plenty of other teams look silly before the tournament is over. But the Aggies didn’t help themselves much, either. They were whistled for 10-second and shot-clock violations, and had to call a timeout because they were being smothered by Cardinals. They threw the ball away and took shots that had no prayer of going in.
And that was just in the first 10 minutes of the game. By the second half, the A&T pep band broke into a rousing rendition of Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.”
“We just didn’t execute,” said Beckford, who led the Aggies with 12 points. “Their press caused turnovers and that’s how they won the game.”
Still, even this end was better than the Aggies could have hoped for when a loss to Norfolk State in the regular-season finale dropped them to 15-16. But North Carolina A&T roared through the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament to clinch an automatic bid, then beat Liberty on Tuesday night for its first NCAA tournament win in 10 tries.
“I’m going to think about the loss because I’m a competitor and I hate losing,” Powell said. “But at the end of the day, we accomplished something that nobody has done. … Nobody expected us to make it that far in our conference. We shocked everybody and proved everybody wrong.”