MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Russ Smith's biggest scoring night of his career helped No. 5 Louisville advance to the American Athletic Conference finals.
Smith scored 42 points and the Cardinals cruised to a 94-65 victory over Houston on Friday in the semifinals of the conference's inaugural tournament.
"You can't describe Russ' game. That's Russdiculous," forward Luke Hancock said of the nickname given to Smith by Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "The moves he makes, and the way he gets to the places he does on the floor, the shots he gets for himself and for his teammates is unbelievable."
Smith shot 14 for 22 from the field and 5 for 7 from 3-point range. His final points came on a three-point play where he hit a reverse layup and converted the ensuing free throw.
"Russ played terrific," Houston coach James Dickey said. "We had trouble containing him. He hit big shots."
Hancock and Montrezl Harrell both added 12 for the second-seeded Cardinals (28-5), who will next face No. 21 Connecticut — a 58-56 winner over No. 13 Cincinnati. Stephan Van Treese grabbed 10 rebounds and connected on his first 3-pointer of the year in the closing minutes.
But Smith was the one who carried the Cardinals' offense from the start. He hit his first five shots and had Houston defenders incorrectly guessing much of the time.
"Our goal was to try and stop him before he get a head full of steam and certainly he got a head full of steam," said Houston's Danuel House, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Cougars. "As a good player should, he knocked down the 3-ball. Once his 3 got going, we started just falling for the head fakes and not guarding the way we are capable of guarding, and just let him get going."
TaShawn Thomas and Brandon Morris scored 13 each for Houston (17-16) as the Cougars lost for only the second time in their last seven games.
Smith's points were the highest by a player in a conference tournament so far this year, and the third most in a game in Louisville history.
To show Smith did more than just fire up shots, he added three assists to the night. After collecting his final points with about 6 minutes left, Smith immediately left the game where Pitino gave the senior guard a celebratory hug.
By that point, the game was out of reach for the Cougars and Pitino emptied his bench, giving others a chance to play in the tournament game.
Pitino said he didn't think his team was sharp defensively, so they needed to perform at a high level offensively.
"We got that from Russ," Pitinio said. "He was brilliant, penetrating, passing, getting in the lane shooting the ball. . A scrawny kid from Brooklyn to a big, strong, tough, 42-point scorer is an amazing performance."
Smith made 8 of 11 shots in the first half, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc to record 27 points leading the Cardinals to a 47-32 lead at halftime. Smith was dominating the Cougars individually. Until the Cougars scored the last seven points of the half, Smith himself was outscoring the Cougars.
Houston went more than 7 minutes without a field goal, helping Louisville stretch its lead to 21 on back-to-back dunks by Harrell, who had 10 in the half, before Houston closed with its seven straight points.
The Cougars never really threatened after halftime as the Cardinals continued to build the advantage, eventually reaching 30 shortly after Smith's departure.
"Once we got behind double digits, we never could make a run at them," Dickey said.
Smith said when he came to Louisville, he wanted to win "as many games as possible" and get a championship, which the Cardinals earned last season.
"When you buy into a system that's been successful, you're going to always be successful," Smith said. "I personally took that challenge to buy into a system, listen, pay attention and get better as a player. So, I'm extremely happy where I'm at."