Williamsburg’s Russ Smith will have a lot on his mind when hits the court for the Final Four this weekend, after mourning the death of his high school coach and watching his teammate suffer a horrifying injury.
The University of Louisville shooting guard scored 23 points to lead the No. 1-seeded Cardinals past No. 2 Duke 85–63 in the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday night. Smith, who has named the region’s most valuable player, and his team reached the semifinals for the second straight year.
“Going to the Final Four again for the second time, it was really hard to do, because everyone had to put all the other stuff aside and focus and have one main goal and one main objective,” Smith said. “I think we did a tremendous job just giving it our all.”
The Cardinals won after witnessing Bronx-native Kevin Ware suffer a gruesome injury. He went out to block a shot in front of the Louisville bench, and fractured his shin in two places on landing, watching it break through the skin with 6:33 remaining in the first half. Smith started crying on the court as his teammate carried off.
“I’d heard it, and then I seen what happened, and I immediately just – just like fell,” Smith said. “And I almost didn’t feel nothing, and it was, it was really hard for me to pull myself together, because I didn’t ever think in a million years I would see something like that.”
Smith, who is averaging 18.5 points per game this season, has dedicated his post season run to his former Molloy coach Jack Curran. The legendary head man, who was on the bench for 55-years at the Briarwood, Queens, school, died in his sleep on March 14 at the age of 82. Curran believed in Smith when others thought he wouldn’t succeed at Louisville. Smith can feel his presence even now.
“Man, I feel it all over, and every time before a game I go out there and say, Coach wants me to do all the right things,” he said after a second-round win over Colorado State. “Coach Curran and Coach [Rick Pitino], those guys have been a great influence in my life, and in high school I just remember Coach telling me, ‘when you get to this level, you have to really focus because you have trouble focusing,’ and Coach P has done a tremendous job with me.”
Smith has taken good care of Louisville so far this post season also. His finger roll got a 12–6 run started to put the Cardinals up 35-32 at the half. Things continued that way after the break. The Cardinals squad, which went on a 20–4 run to put the game away, faces No. 9-seeded Wichita State in the semifinals at 6:05 pm on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
“We knew all along that we were good, and we knew how great of a team we are,” Smith said. “Coach [Pitino] knew it. The whole staff. We had faith in each other. All we had to do was put it together.”Reach reporter Joseph Staszewski at jstaszewsk
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