Created on Saturday, 30 March 2013 Written by NANCY ARMOUR,AP National Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Louisville coach Rick Pitino is baffled by Russ Smith.
Not by the star guard himself, who is managing to outdo himself each time he steps on the court. No, Pitino doesn't understand why the rest of the country isn't as impressed with Smith as he — and every opponent who's faced him — is.
"I look at (player of the year) lists, and I don't see Russ Smith. I don't see him on the All-America teams," Pitino said. "I'm baffled, just baffled, because it wasn't like he was a Johnny-come-lately. He carried us on his back to a Final Four last year."
And he's one game from doing it again.
With Louisville having a rare off night, Smith lifted the Cardinals to a 77-69 victory over Oregon on Friday that put them in the Midwest Region finals. He matched his career high of 31 points, including seven during what would wind up being the game's decisive run.
Smith is averaging 27 points through the first three games of the tournament.
"Russ Smith is a talented young man," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "When he got going, we didn't have an answer."
Louisville (32-5) plays Duke on Sunday, the first time Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski have met in a regional final since Christian Laettner's shot in 1992.
The 12th-seeded Ducks managed to make a game of it, though, which is more than most of Louisville's recent opponents can say.
After Louisville went up 66-48 with 9:01 left, Oregon made six straight field goals to close to 70-64. But Kevin Ware scored on a layup and Chane Behanan threw down a monstrous dunk to put the game out of reach.
Ware finished with 11, topping his previous career best by one, and Gorgui Dieng had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
E.J. Singler's 15 points led five Ducks in double figures. But Damyean Dotson had an off night, held without a field goal until five minutes were gone in the second half, and Oregon could never recover from its poor start.
Early foul trouble didn't help, with Johnathan Loyd picking up his third before halftime and Dominic Artis and Carlos Emory playing the last six minutes of the half with two.
"If it wasn't for the beginning, it would have been a completely different game," Loyd said. "We just came out, we weren't ready and we got smacked. If we were playing the way were playing in the second half the whole game, it's a completely different story."
The Cardinals were barely tested in either of their first two games in the NCAA tournament, beating North Carolina A&T by 31 and Colorado State by 26. They set an NCAA tournament record with 20 steals against A&T, outrebounded one of the country's best rebounding teams in Colorado State and left both teams with ugly shooting lines.
But a hacking cough that Smith has had the last few days is making its way around the Louisville team, and it was clear from the start this wasn't going to be another juggernaut performance by the Cardinals.
Peyton Siva spent the last 15:19 of the first half on the bench after picking up his second foul, and Louisville wasn't nearly as stingy on defense as it's been. The Cardinals (13) actually had more turnovers than the Ducks (12), and Oregon is only the third team to shoot 44 percent or better during Louisville's winning streak.
Thanks to Smith, however, the Cardinals finished like they always do lately: with a win.
After Siva went out, Smith hit a 3 to spark a 14-3 run that put Louisville up 24-8. When he capped the spurt with a layup, it was Russ Smith 9, Oregon 8.
"We really dug ourselves a big hole," Singler said. "We tried to figure back as much as possible, but Louisville's a really, really good team. They just played better than us today."
But the Ducks aren't a team that gives in.
After losing six of their last 11 regular-season games, the Ducks have been on a tear. They won the Pac-12 tournament, then upset Oklahoma State and Saint Louis last weekend.
They went on a 16-4 run that cut Louisville's lead to six points, the smallest it had been since the opening minutes of the game.
"We watched film and seen how they run, and we kind of figured out that would happen," Chane Behanan said.
Instead of panicking, the Cardinals regrouped and regained control. After Ware and Behanan's baskets, Smith shot 3-of-4 from the line to seal the win.
"Coach has been telling me to fight through (his cold), fight through it, dig in. My teammates as well," Smith said. "We're fighting through it and just doing whatever we can to get a win."