The first game for the #2 ranked University of Louisville Cardinals away from the KFC! Yum Center proved to be an adventure against the University of Northern Iowa Panthers in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau, Paradise Island, the Bahamas on Thanksgiving Night. The Cards played an uncomfortable game in an arena that looked very much like the converted ballroom it is. Plug in an inspired Missouri Valley Conference team and the game got tough. However, Louisville has a Russdiculous shooting guard named Russ Smith who sparked the Cardinals to victory 51-46.
Louisville came into the game knowing that #19 Memphis had already the victim of an upset at the hands of Virginia Commonwealth University. Could that happen to the Cardinals in one of the most loaded early season tournaments in recent memory?
The Cards went into the locker room leading 26-20 by scratching and clawing on the defensive end. The first half got into the Cardinal pocket when Montrezl Harrell came in to provide rebounding help. Before his entry, Louisville took quite a few shots that were misses and they didn't crash the glass. That kept many possessions to one shot and start running back on defense.
Gorgui Dieng never find his groove. Luke Hancock still can’t find the bottom of the net. Peyton Siva played tight. That won't fly with #13 Missouri or #5 Duke looming as matchups during the rest of the weekend.
Luckily Russ Smith is always open for a shot. Even when he’s not. That ‘s what caused coach Rick Pitino to name one of his racehorses Russdiculous. Like UofL’s 6-0 junior shooting guard, that horse has a ton of talent, but you never know what he’s going to do next.
Coming out in the second half, whatever adjustments were made, brought the Cards back to Louisville basketball. The defense played well. It took UNI nearly 11 minutes in the second half to score 4 points. The game nearly went into Cardinal cruise control.
Then the wheels nearly fell off. The Panthers made an extended run of their own, evaporating a seemingly insurmountable Cardinal lead.
When the run started, Northern Iowa succeeded where Louisville struggled, from long distance. The Panthers hit threes, sometimes uncontested. Pitino got so hot under the collar he removed his suit jacket. Not a good sign.
The Cards looked to the front line to close game, pounding inside with Dieng, using penetration by Smith and employing a drive by Hancock. In the end, Russ Smith's catch and shoot inbound play saved the tournament for Louisville because he got fouled on the made basket and he subsequently hit the accompanying free throw.
Smith led all scorers with 16 points. He also chipped in 5 assists and 4 steals to go with his 6 turnovers. He was the only Cardinal in double figures because he’s always open. Even when he’s not.
It was Russdiculous.
The Cards play Missouri Friday night at 9:30 as the Battle 4 Atlantis continues.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton