He was everywhere. He was shooting the ball effectively. He is a guy shooting well over 50 percent. Russ Smith looked up at the scoreboard, watched the clock expired and heard the buzzer sound. He was relieved to know it was finally over, he started crying and teammates hugged him, but no one appreciated him more than his coach, Rick Pitino, who kindly exchanged words and laughed with his fast and talented guard on the court.
There’s no better transition guard in the country, the top-scoring player relentlessly defending the perimeter, the speedy runner who exploits lateral quickness and displays ferocity as he’s omnipresent and turns the game into a track meet. With Smith outmuscling and outworking opponents in basketball, committed to playing at a fast tempo and managing to get into the lane and score at will, Louisville beat a pesky Wichita State 72-68 to reach the title game for the first time since 1986. The highest point for Smith, a skilled guard who’s as loved as horses in Kentucky, an endearing athlete for a Louisville squad one win away from a third national title in school history, came into view when his stardom began to rise and when he reached the acme of his incredible career with the gift and enthusiasm to translate well to the NBA.
There’s a reason he’s leading all scorers in the NCAA tournament and he has earned an excellent reputation, even a nickname “Russdiculous,” which was given to him by Pitino. This was to have been the beginning of another jubilee, the first national title trip since Denny Crum guided Louisville to two national championships in the 80s. The Cardinals were down by as many as 12 points with 13 minutes to play in the Final Four when walk-on Tim Henderson hit a corner 3-pointer off a pass from Luke Hancock, then Henderson drained another 3-pointer from the same corner, finding his sweet spot and becoming an unsung hero.
This hot shooter couldn’t be stopped and barely was contained, finishing the night with six points in just 42 seconds, a spectacular effort from a guy who had to write letters to Pitino, begging him for an opportunity and finally was welcomed to join the basketball program. It was a scenario similar to when Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the former walk-on at Notre Dame, featured on the big screen and became an inspiration, just as we are seeing the emergence of a backup guard, rallying one of the greatest comebacks in Final Four history.
This was a motion picture in the making. This was a cinematic Final Four.
The college basketball world told a story about Kevin Ware for much of the week, the injured guard who vastly was a primary topic and an inspirational tale. But, as it turns out, Henderson, and respectively so, is the one player everyone is talking about. He performed incredibly and confidently stepped up and played well. It was a great night for Smith, as well, and he finally altered his game to play more efficiently and consistently. A long time ago, he was awful, he attempted ill-advised shots, and he was selfish and unintelligent. A long time ago, he would turn over the ball and miss free throws. But now, he’s more disciplined, he secures the ball as if he’s holding an infant tightly and, well, he’s careening and spinning into the lane.
The swishing of the nets was loud, the cheering of the fans was deafening on a night when Luke Hancock was the star and on a night when Smith, an emerging star who is averaging 26.0 points during an outstanding NCAA tournament, scored 21 points, handed out three assists and snatched two steals. The most awesome part of Louisville’s late surge was Hancock, who might have been virtually the storyline of the Final Four, making clutch plays in the second half and settling for 20 points.
A packed Georgia Dome with a multitude of Louisville fans screamed, as the Cardinals overcame the largest second-half deficit in a national semifinals in 12 years, the last we’ve seen a Final Four so compelling, so electrifying — for those who are in love with epic ballgames and comebacks. The Louisville crowd, louder than those red shirts, howled and cheered on the Cardinals, during which Henderson went on a shooting tear. As Wichita State, worn down and exhausted, was leading by 12, Henderson knocked down his first 3-pointer with 13 minutes left. Seconds later, he was firing another long-range shot to reduce the Shockers lead to six, still on fire with his clutch shots that overwhelmed Wichita State.
The Cardinals, however, kept their hopes alive, their promises and chances of winning a national title intact, while a dream suddenly came to an end for the Shockers. The boys from Wichita slowly worked the ball upcourt, fatigued and plagued by Louisville’s speed and up-tempo offense, which created fast-break points and allowed the Cardinals to beat Wichita State. The favorites are more foreseeable and scarier than ever, yet it still overwhelms the senses that Ware is not available to play because of a broken leg and that Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, bounced back, overcame adversity and fought hard against the underdogs.
The Cardinals, clearly the deepest squad in the country guided by Pitino, the only coach to have taken three different schools to the Final Four, are inspired, motivated and on a mission. They may have lost one of their men and may have experienced one of the most horrific injuries in sports, but Ware’s words have inspired and uplifted the team’s spirit to compete hard and strong, to raise the trophy and cut down the nets by the time it’s all over.
Plus, Smith, the 6-foot-1 specimen, is undeniably the x-factor to Louisville’s unstoppable, high-octane offense, having amazingly one of those seasons. It should be noted, now that he’s a third-team All-American for the No. 1 team in the country, that he’s the frontrunner for the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. In this game alone, he was 6 of 17 shooting. It turns out he was clumsy and careless with the ball, having four turnovers in the first half, five total. And he was terrible from the foul line, going 5 for 12. He’s quick with the ball and has the ability to finish in traffic as a skilled penetrator and defensive specialist.
The praise belongs to Henderson, just as much as Smith merits recognition for setting the tone early, despite that Wichita State jumped out to a fast start and could have pulled off the improbable even. Late in the game Hancock and Chane Behanan, who scored eight points, both led the way for the Cardinals. And as much as fans love Peyton Siva, the nation’s most complete point guard, he only shot 1 for 9 from the field, having one of those off nights that every player is entitled to have once in a while. There was not much scoring from Gorgui Dieng or Wayne Blackshear, if at all, but the good thing was that Smith, Behanan, Hancock and Henderson especially had those players’ backs, regardless of how poorly the starters were playing.
It’s good to know Ware had confidence that Henderson could prevail and prove his worth on college basketball’s big stage, and amazingly, he knew Henderson had it in him, finishing 4 for 17 from the 3-point line. Together, as the deepest and most well-coached team in the country, they won a pivotal game. And when Henderson was called to play, taking the place of his injured teammate, he was certainly ready and succeeded in his role. It took a couple of unexpected shots Saturday night to make a name for himself.
It wouldn’t be nice to spoil his night and realize that Smith was huge in the semifinals, a major part why the Cardinals will be playing for a national title. If different guys can show up each night, it just goes to show you that this team will likely be crowned winners by Monday night.