LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Russ Smith ranked Louisville’s 80-77 victory over Kentucky on Saturday as one of the five favorites of his career.
Makes sense, considering he played a key role in ending the No. 4 Cardinals’ four-game losing streak against the rival Wildcats.
Smith scored 21 points, including five of Louisville’s final 13, along with seven rebounds to help the Cardinals hold off Kentucky in an up-and-down game.
The effort comes nearly a year after he came off the bench to score 30 in the Cardinals’ 69-62 loss to the Wildcats in Lexington, one of two defeats last season to their in-state rivals that included last season’s national semifinal.
“This one probably ranks as one of the top five biggest wins of my life,” said the junior guard, whose list includes last season’s NCAA regional final, the round of 16 and Louisville’s two wins that clinched the Big East Conference championship last March.
“We know where we messed up and we know the mistakes we made, but at the end of the day it’s a win. It’s not a conference win but it’s a great non-conference win. It’s a great win for the city. We’re actually more happy for our fans than for ourselves. ... I guess revenge is the word, but it feels good beating the team that knocked you out of the Final Four.”
Especially since that team, Kentucky, resides about 80 miles east and had recently owned the Battle of the Bluegrass. Louisville now has bragging rights, and Smith had help in getting them for the Cardinals.
Sophomore forward Chane Behanan had 20 points, seven rebounds and three steals, including a steal of Archie Goodwin’s pass that led to his dunk with 18 seconds remaining that sealed the victory for Louisville (12-1).
“I feel like I could have done better,” said Behanan, who had been banned from talking to the media this fall by coach Rick Pitino. “I took a lot of plays off throughout the game. I feel as though I could have gotten a lot more rebounds than I did. In a game like that you just give it your all to win it.
“It was my third time playing them. It just feels good to win, not for me but the city too.”
Before fouling out Peyton Siva added 19 points for the Cardinals, who had to withstand several charges from Kentucky.
The Wildcats trailed 51-34 but outscored the Cardinals 28-14 to get within 65-62 before Smith’s two baskets keyed an 8-5 run that gave Louisville some breathing room.
The Cardinals won despite four fouls by Smith and center Gorgui Dieng, who returned from a seven-game absence with a broken left wrist. The junior had six points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
“A great win for us because we had to battle a lot of bad foul trouble,” Pitino said. “We survived with good plays from Chane and Russ. The offense and defense in the first half was spectacular then we lost our defensive presence in the second half because we were worried about foul trouble.”
Goodwin scored 19 of his 22 points in the second half for Kentucky (8-4) and Ryan Harrow added 17 points.
Poor foul shooting hurt the Wildcats’ comeback. They shot just 11 of 23 (48 percent) from the line, matching their percentage from the field.
Kentucky trailed 77-74 following a rare four-point play as Goodwin was fouled by Siva as he made a 3-pointer.
Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t call timeout after that, and Goodwin’s turnover followed.
“Believe me, I was standing there thinking timeout and didn’t call it,” Calipari said. “That was the end of the game. I told them this one was on me and hopefully I’ll do a better job.
“Stuff like that happens and I take responsibility. They (Louisville) deserved to win. But I didn’t give our guys the chance they deserved with the way they played down the stretch.”
Louisville also shot 48 percent from the field, but made 17 of 25 from the free throw line to win its seventh straight.
As might be expected from bitter in-state rivals, the early minutes were physical and intense with six ties and five lead changes.
There were lineup changes for both teams.
Kentucky started 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein alongside 6-10 Nerlens Noel for the first time in an effort to establish a post presence against the Cardinals.
The Wildcats’ move might have been a pre-emptive one with Louisville expected to start the 6-11 Dieng.
The Cardinals instead started 6-10 Zach Price but Dieng entered the game just 1:43 in and quickly made his presence felt with three rebounds, a block and a dunk that helped give Louisville a 12-10 lead.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the junior soon picked up his second foul and was replaced by Montrezl Harrell, who had seven points and four rebounds.
Louisville started 6 of 16 from the field and trailed 18-12, but went on a 13-2 run led by Behanan, who scored six points. He scored 11 points to help give the Cardinals a 36-28 lead at the half.
Kentucky came back behind three 3-pointers each by Wiltjer (14 points) and Goodwin, who finished 8 of 15 from the field. But Louisville survived because of a defense that forced 15 turnovers leading to 19 points and the end of a frustrating losing streak for the Cardinals and their fans.
“It finally gets the monkey off your back,” Siva said. “You can stop thinking about it now and go out and play you don’t have to get heckled by fans everywhere you go. For our fans this is like a national championship game. This feels good for them."