INDIANAPOLIS — Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium produced a tease and a throw-down.
The Midwest Region semifinals in downtown Indianapolis didn’t disappoint. Louisville continued its steady Big Dance dominance by defeating Oregon, 77-69, and Duke outlasted Michigan State, 71-61, in a heavyweight clash between two of college basketball’s perennial powers.
The Cardinals and Blue Devils will meet in Sunday’s regional final, tipping at 5:05 p.m., a rematch of the 1986 national championship game won by Louisville.
Russdiculous shines for Cardinals despite “ridiculous” cold
In the early matchup, Oregon couldn’t duck an early Cardinal ambush, falling behind 9-8 to Russ Smith alone, and 24-8 to Louisville as a whole, 10 minutes into the contest.
From there, the Ducks actually outscored their counterparts, 61-53.
But, every time the Pac-12 champs mounted a surge, Smith – the junior guard known as ‘Russdiculous’ – was there to curtail any momentum.
He drew a foul and hit one of two free throws when Oregon inched within 28-19 with 7:30 remaining in the first half.
He stole the ball from Dominic Artis and laid the ball in to push Louisville in front, 54-42, five minutes into the second half.
Two minutes later, when the Ducks trimmed their deficit to eight, Smith’s jumper silenced the green and yellow cluster of the stadium.
And there he was once again at the 9:53 mark, drawing a foul and hitting two from the stripe to extend the Cardinals’ advantage to 13.
Smith equaled a career-high with 31 points, including a 12-for-14 performance at the charity stripe. Postgame, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Smith recently contracted a “ridiculous” cold that was bordering on infecting the rest of the team.
Suffice to say, Oregon coach Dana Altman rued the Ducks’ slow start and his team’s inability to contain Smith.
“(We’re) disappointed today. We didn’t feel like we put our best foot forward in the first half. We dug ourselves a pretty big hole and weren’t able to come back,” Altman said. “Louisville is a very good basketball team and very talented, and Smith got going to the basket and we just never got him slowed down.”
At times, it appeared Pitino’s team was toying with Oregon – Louisville never trailed Friday – and was seemingly interested in giving itself a bit of a test. And who can blame them? The Cardinals have now won their three tournament games by an average of nearly 23 points per game.
Granted, North Carolina A&T, Colorado State and Oregon aren’t exactly Murderer’s Row, but there’s something to be said for simply surviving and advancing. (I’m looking at you Georgetown, Gonzaga, Kansas State, New Mexico and Wisconsin).
The Cardinals’ bread and butter, its hellacious full-court press, only produced 14 points off the Ducks’ 12 turnovers. To steal VCU’s defensive moniker, Pitino intentionally curbed the enthusiasm on his own brand of Havoc, preferring to lure Oregon into a half-court game.
And now, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed is the lone top-liner left after No. 4 Michigan and Trey Burke used an incredible late rally to get past No. 1 Kansas in the South Region.
In the era of one-and-dones, the red and black’s top five scorers Friday night were three juniors and two sophomores. The upperclassmen have journeyed through the indignity of the opening-round exit to No. 13 seed Morehead State in 2011 and last spring’s joyous run to the Final Four.
So long as Smith’s sickness doesn’t become more than a bad cough, it’s hard to fathom how Duke will be able to corral him Sunday.
“Overall, it’s really a team effort. They’re finding me in transition, coming off screens and throwing me like on point passes where I can create. So a lot of times it’s not the actual scorer, it’s the person setting the guy up for it,” Smith explained. “And I’m getting great outlet passes, great curl passes, great passes fading off screens. I think we’re just doing a tremendous job just trying to win it, doing whatever you can to win.”
Curry’s six triples lead Duke
The nightcap was the knock-down, drag-out battle everyone thought it would be between two teams that have combined to make 34 consecutive tournaments, and whose coaches, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo, have appeared in 17 Final Fours won nearly 1,400 games.
The star was the Blue Devils’ senior guard Seth Curry, who converted 6-of-9 3-pointers en route to a game-best 29 points.
After seizing control of the game midway through the second half, Duke hit 13-of-14 free throws in the game’s final 5:19 to quash any comeback hopes by Sparty. The Blue Devils finished 24-of-26 from the stripe.
Curry hit three consecutive triples to begin the second half, and then Michigan State went six minutes without a made field goal.
The first half was a draw in every sense. The Blue Devils led by two key margins 32-31 – the score and the rebounding count. Duke had five assists and five turnovers, Michigan State had four assists and four turnovers.
The game featured athletes all over the floor, but the pace was marred by tight officiating, which resulted in 41 fouls and 50 free-throw attempts.
Last time Duke was in the building, back in 2010, Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave to win the national championship for Butler rimmed out, and Krzyzewski emerged with his fourth title as Duke coach.
If Coach K gets another game like this from Curry, and his guards can control Smith, he’ll move a step closer to a fifth banner.