The moment Russ Smith’s high-arcing jump shot ripped through the net inside Fifth Third Arena and broke the heart of every Cincinnati fan, player and coach in attendance, Louisville’s entire season changed.
Forget finally beating a ranked team or the NCAA Tournament seeding and AAC regular season title implications; all that stuff is important, but more than that, this team really needed something, for lack of a better term, “cool” to happen. And not “lots of crazy dunks against Rutgers” cool, but “lead story on SportsCenter” cool.
People forget that up until early March, the major knock on last season’s national championship team was that it didn’t have a killer instinct and that it couldn’t make big plays in the final moments of close games. That all changed with Luke Hancock’s clutch corner three at Syracuse in early March, and I think Smith’s shot could wind up having a similar effect on this year’s Cards.
The confidence gained from a play like that permeates throughout an entire team. Suddenly, everyone thinks that the big play is going to be made in the closing seconds. Suddenly, everyone has confidence in each of their teammates when the game’s on the line. Suddenly, everyone expects to win in those situations.
I’m not saying this Louisville team should now be the favorites to win it all, or that every one of the questions we had before the Cincinnati game has been answered. I’m just saying that this was a necessary step for this group to take if it wants to accomplish what last year’s team did. It had to happen, and it did.
This is the time of the year when, if you’re fortunate enough to have one, you lean on your All-American. If Louisville’s All-American doesn’t step up in Cincinnati last Saturday, the Cards lose yet another heartbreaker and the “can’t win big games” narrative probably persists until at least the AAC Tournament.
The crazy thing about the final minute at Fifth Third is that it didn’t seem like there were going to be any heroics from Russ. With Cincy rallying and UofL desperately needing an answer in the closing segment, Russ fell on a drive and turned the ball over, and then dribbled the ball off his foot two possessions later. He then completely changed the tide of the game in the final minute by being a distributor…just like we all (read: no one) predicted.
The first pass for a wide-open Montrezl Harrell dunk was more of a UC mistake than it was a terrific find by Russ or finish by Harrell, but the pass that took place on the succeeding possession was a work of art best appreciated with a prime cut of meat and a glass of fine wine. Smith got a step on his man, but not enough space to get a shot off, so he rises to get the defense’s attention and then lays a gorgeous bounce pass into the chest of Harrell for an easy lay-up. A year or two ago, Smith either forces that shot in the lane or he attempts to make that bounce pass a second earlier and turns the ball over.
The stage was then set for the shot that changed the season. Of course the season was going to change after that shot regardless; it just would have been steered towards a dark, dark place for UofL had Smith’s shot found iron.
If Louisville loses to Cincinnati in the manner they were trending towards, I’m not sure they come back from it. Bad fouls, missed free throws, Luke Hancock’s wild shot, a simple pass from Chris Jones to Smith that winds up sailing out of bounds; it was a performance that was going to result in the word “meltdown” being tossed around liberally, and the players’ body language showed that they were well aware of it.
Following that Jones turnover, he threw his arms down and yelled something at Smith, who said something back. Rick Pitino, who was planning on keeping Chris in the game, then yelled at Jones, who again yelled something back. Terry Rozier was then quickly sent to the scorer’s table so Pitino and Jones could have a little chat.
Pitino spent the entire subsequent defensive possession (with UC up one and two minutes to play) in the face of Jones. But he wasn’t berating him, it was more of a forceful, “you’ve got to stop pouting after mistakes, it’s time to step up” deal. The starting point guard was then sent right back into the game.
If you’ve watched the video of Smith’s game-winner no less than 75 times like you should have by now, you’ll notice that both Jones and Rozier barely flinch after it happens. Rozier falls right back to defend the long pass on defense, and Jones goes to defend the in-bounder. The latter gets the key tip to end the game and then does his best impression of Michael Jordan after hitting the shot over Craig Ehlo. It’s a fantastic sequence for everyone involved, especially Jones, who just a minute earlier had seemed to be on the verge of melting down.
Again, the final minute on Saturday could not have been more important. March is arriving, and Louisville is undoubtedly a national title contender. I wasn’t sure if any of us would be able to say that with an honest heart a couple of months ago.
Photos by GAIL KAMENISH | Contributing Photographer