Louisville basketball is something special. It is the quintessential team-first program. A program rich with winning traditions and today was nothing short of the storybook ending we all expected. The last opportunity for our senior’s to wear the Louisville jersey in front of their home crowd. The final time, fans can show their love, admiration and respect to the most winningest class in our storied history. That feat, (winning the most games) in itself, a staggering almost magical tale, speaks volumes of how special this class truly was. Those four unheralded seniors, took the floor for their final game at home.
UCONN vs Louisville. Big East foes. AAC conference player of the year candidates, Russ Smith and Shabaz Napier, battling for what may be their final time. It was a perfect last regular season matchup. A tune up, if you will, for the AAC and NCAA tournaments that will follow.
Louisville jumped out to an early lead and they really seemed focused. I feel like I can speak for most fans when saying, I just had a good feeling that there was no chance Louisville was losing this game. What I was not expecting, (in “Russdiculous’s” final game) was the stat lines that followed. More with that in a moment. The game was a bit slow, with both teams struggling to find the basket but their were many positives that became apparent during this time. First, the defensive intensity. I know we say “losses are learning experiences” but one could argue that the Memphis loss last Saturday, was more like a full blown WAKE UP CALL. This team, although experienced, has lacked a solid leader. That all changed after the loss at Memphis. Our basketball team was completely demoralized after that game and we fans, questioned the legitimacy of this team. Enter SMU. A game where the defensive prowess was extraordinary, and Russ Smith, finally announced to his team, and this fan base, that he was ready to be its leader.
That leader, marched into his final game today and was nothing short of mesmerizing. We had all expected a ton of points from him, but instead he facilitated the offense with such tactile precision that UCONN didn’t know what hit them. Russ only attempted two shots. Think about those words. Russ ONLY attempted two shots! Believe it or not, he was easily the player of the game and he only took two shots. What he did instead, was make perfect pass after perfect pass to Luke, Montrez, Chris Jones, etc. Ironically, setting his own assist record on senior night, a night meant for his own spotlight. He assisted 13 made shots for his teammates and as a result, this team thrived. We fans, were watching Russ blossom into the leader we had always hoped he would be. We were watching a new Louisville team. This team was no longer living in the shadows of last years excellence. It was announcing its new bid for another National Championship run.
With 9 minutes left in the game UCONN was down by its largest margin, 23 and this game was all but over. Suffocating defense and selfless, Louisville first attitudes proved unmatched on this senior day. The crowd cheered as Russ made a behind the back pass to a soaring Montrez Harrell for the emphatic tomahawk dunk and with that summed up the transformation of this team.
As the seniors were one by one called back to the bench, the Yum Center roared, each time a bit louder, knowing that was their last chance to show appreciation. The final score was an impressive 81-48 victory over a very good UCONN team. Shabazz Napier finished 1-10 3pts, and only 9 points. Luke Hancock finished with 16, SVT 6 points, 13 rebounds, Henderson scored 2 and Russ finished with 3 points and 13 assists. All worthy endings to unforgettable careers.
This Louisville senior class, and all its wins, are not done yet. As Luke so eloquently put it, “all we do is win championships”. The focus now is American Athletic Conference Tournament. This team has full intentions of bringing home another conference title and putting themselves in the best possible seed for the NCAA tournament. If the seniors play as they did today, there is no reason this team could not make another Final Four appearance. If the “leader” Russ Smith continues to play, then the skies the limit. Card Nation get ready, this is about to be another March to remember. Thanks Russ Smith, Tim (Wichita) Henderson, Luke Hancock and Stephen Van Treese for the timeless memories. You will always be a Cardinal and we will always be forever grateful. Louisville First, Cards Forever.