Cardinals corral Mustangs, silence rowdy Moody Coliseum

The American Athletic Conference-leading and defending national champion Louisville Cardinals basketball team remains one of the nation’s top road attractions.

Tickets to Wednesday night’s matchup between No. 11 Louisville and No.18 Southern Methodist at the Mustangs’ Moody Coliseum skyrocketed to an average of $184 on secondary ticket websites according to SeatGeek.

The Cardinals’ trip to Dallas marked SMU’s first home game between two ranked opponents since the No. 9 Mustangs defeated the No. 19 Cardinals 72-64 on Feb. 16, 1985.

SMU fans were in full force Wednesday night to celebrate not only the Mustangs’ most important game in decades, but also senior night for SMU starters Nick Russell and Shawn Williams, who have combined for 135 starts. Coach Rick Pitino said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin told him “it’s bedlam” when SMU packs its gym.

The Cardinals were prepared. Louisville took the SMU fans’ best punch and stood tall on a night when Moody Coliseum was stuffed not with the arena’s listed capacity of 7,000 fans, but 7,305.

When you have a former President of the United States and his family wanting to attend the game you manage to make more room.

A seat in the Moody Coliseum had become the toughest ticket in the history of college basketball in Dallas. Former President George W. Bush, his wife, Laura and their daughter, Jenna were in attendance. Pitino instructed Luke Hancock to shake the President’s hand before the game and tell him that it was an honor for the Cardinals to play with him and his family in attendance.

Two rows behind Bush was Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones. Down at the baseline were Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo and head coach Jason Garrett. Troy Aikman, the Dallas Cowboys’ Hall of Fame quarterback, was also in the house.

The Cardinals (25-5, 14-3 AAC) disappointed the celebrity crowd when they became the first opponent to win in SMU’s renovated Moody Coliseum, coming from behind to defeat the Mustangs 84-71 in front of the amped-up sellout crowd, which was witnessing the first home matchup between ranked teams since 1985. Rick Pitino also won the matchup of Hall of Fame coaches, as the loss was SMU’s and Larry Brown’s first in 10 games since moving back into their home court in January. SMU had already defeated three Top 25 teams at home this season, with decisive wins over UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati by an average of 15 points.

The Mustangs (23-7, 12-5) jumped out to an early 18-5 lead and was up by 14 points with 7:08 remaining in the first half, shining at both ends of the floor. SMU was shooting 64.7% from the floor, while Louisville was shooting 29.4%. SMU had forced 7 Louisville turnovers and drawn 5 fouls.

At the 6:53 mark, SMU’s Nick Russell grabbed a defensive rebound off a Terry Rozier missed 3-pointer and led 26-12. But the Cardinals’ unnerving defense began to work its magic and forced the Mustangs into a miserable closing stretch for the duration of the first half. After the Russell rebound SMU turned the ball over 4 times and committed 3 fouls before getting off its next shot.  SMU would score only 4 points the rest of the half on 4 made free throw attempts. Louisville turned the 14-point deficit at 7:08 into a two-point halftime lead by forcing 9 SMU turnovers and drawing 5 fouls.

The first 6 minutes of the second half were back-and-forth with the each team possessing slim leads at some point. However, the Russ Smith Show debuted at the 13:46 mark with an assist on an alley-oop to Montrezl Harrell and three consecutive 3-pointers to put Louisville up 52-45 with 11:33 left.

The Mustangs galloped back to within 3 points at 59-56 by the 6:53 mark until Russdiculous unleashed another barrage of offense to open up a sizeable lead that the Cardinals would never relinquish. Smith contributed to every point Louisville scored for the next 4 minutes, knocking down three 3-pointers, a layup, a jumper, an assist, and a steal for good measure. At the TV timeout with 2:54 remaining the Cardinals had opened up a 75-63 lead.

Before Smith’s first three pointer at the 13:02 mark in the second half, he had scored only 4 points and committed 3 turnovers. But the senior guard put his Cardinals on his back when they needed him most as he scored 22 of his 26 points after halftime, hitting every one of his 6 3-point attempts.

Smith’s performance Wednesday night was exceptionally resilient, as he had started vomiting Tuesday night after the Cardinals’ pre-game meal. Smith was still feeling the illness’ effects throughout the contest and even needed to excuse himself from a Louisville timeout with 2:36 left in the game to pay his respects to a trash can.

“Coach was drawing up a play and Russ just got up and walked away,” Montrezl Harrell said. “I asked him where he was going because he was in the game.”

He came back onto the court out of the timeout to record an assist on the next play before having to visit the trash can once more.

“That was crazy. It was happening right when we were in the huddle. You know you get that nasty little belch, and then after that I just had to excuse myself,” Smith said. “I was trying to play through it. But I realized we had a pretty decent lead so I didn’t want to force the issue to make things worse.”

“He just came through in a big way,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “That was a Michael Jordan-type performance in terms of being sick and gutting it out.”

Unfortunately, Smith’s roommate, Chris Jones was not playing the game under the best of circumstances either. On Saturday, when the Cardinals were playing in his hometown of Memphis, Jones’ step-brother was shot and killed in Jones’ neighborhood.

“I’ve been in my room crying a lot but I’ve just kept doing what he wanted me to do,” Jones said. “I’m dedicating the rest of this season (to Ray). That’s why I’m playing so hard. That’s what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to win the whole thing for him.”

Jones scored 21 for Ray and the Cardinals. Not only was it his career high, but it was also more than Jones scored in the last four games combined.

The Cardinals had a total of four starters in double digits with Harrell posting 19 and Luke Hancock draining 15 with the help of three 3-pointers of his own.  The Cardinals have been anxious for someone else other than Smith or Harrell to heat up heading into the AAC Tournament and March Madness.

Louisville will need more help from its bench, which had only 3 points against the Mustangs. The Cardinals lack of production from its reserves has become a recently disturbing trend after the bench offered up only 6 points in its loss to Memphis.

The 13-point comeback win against SMU assists Louisville in bolstering its case for a top seed come Selection Sunday. The victory also helps put a quality dent in the armor of the Cardinals’ detractors who have argued they are capable of winning the easy games but struggle against ranked teams.

Wednesday night’s victory was only Louisville’s second against a ranked team, with the other being February 22nd’s win at Cincinnati. However, the Cardinals have also beaten SMU and Connecticut when they were unranked.

Louisville is guaranteed at least a share of the first AAC title with a victory at home Saturday against No. 19 UConn. No. 15 Cincinnati (25-5, 14-3) defeated No. 20 Memphis at home Thursday and goes to Rutgers on Saturday.

No one quite knows what to expect from the AAC Conference Tournament as there are potentially five different teams (Louisville, SMU, UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati) who wouldn’t surprise anyone if they emerged victorious.

The Cardinals have swept the Mustangs. The Mustangs have swept the Huskies. The Huskies and Bearcats have swept the Tigers. The Tigers have swept the Cardinals.

Make sense?

However, with a win at home against UConn on Saturday, Louisville could head into the AAC tournament as the hottest team with back-to-back wins against ranked conference opponents.

If the Cardinals continue to radiate the type of resilience their two guards displayed Wednesday night in Dallas, the rest of the AAC may all be looking for trash cans come tournament time next week in Memphis.

Russ Smith knocks down a jumper to propel the Cards over the Mustangs.

Russ Smith knocks down a jumper to propel the Cards over the Mustangs.