Brian Otskey (@botskey) filed this report from Louisville’s win over Notre Dame in the nightcap of the Big East semifinals on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Three key takeaways:
- Louisville’s interior defense was phenomenal. The Cardinals held Notre Dame to 12-of-31 shooting inside the arc as its guards did a great job cutting off dribble penetration. Jack Cooley and Garrick Sherman were able to score some but Louisville forced the Fighting Irish into many tough, contested twos. Louisville was tops in conference play in two-point percentage against and it showed this evening. With Gorgui Dieng anchoring the back line and guards like Russ Smith and Peyton Siva cutting off penetration and creating havoc on the perimeter, it’s a lethal combination. There’s a reason Louisville’s adjusted defensive efficiency currently checks in at a superb 80.9. The Cards are ridiculously good on that end of the floor and will be a nightmare match-up for most teams who aren’t used to seeing a big time shot-blocker and relentless full court pressure.
- Russ Smith has quietly had himself a tournament to remember. After scoring 28 points in Thursday’s win over Villanova, Smith hung 20 on the Irish while also dropping six dimes. Smith has been an efficient shooter in New York, making 15 of his 26 field goal attempts through two days here. After the game, Rick Pitino said Smith doesn’t frustrate him all that much with his shot selection, giving his dynamic junior some latitude on the offensive end. It’s on defense where Pitino gets upset with “Russdiculous,” especially when he loses his man off the ball. Smith will have to play well tomorrow night against Syracuse because the Orange will pressure him and could force him into some bad decisions. You never know what you’re going to get out of Smith and that’s what makes him a must-see player.
- Although his week just ended, Pat Connaughton was fantastic. In three games at the Garden, Connaughton made 15 threes, one short of the record currently held by Syracuse’s James Southerland (this year) and Gerry McNamara (2006). After the game, head coach Mike Brey said he thought his team found something this week at MSG and that would help them going forward into the NCAA Tournament. He mentioned how it would be nice if they kept shooting the ball well, no doubt a reference to his gritty sophomore from Arlington, Massachusetts. Connaughton is a typical New England kid: smart, mature for his age, seasoned, and a great competitor. He does more than shoot, too. Connaughton averages almost five rebounds per game because he isn’t afraid of contact and uses his body well in creating position. He’ll be a huge asset next week in the tournament and over the next two years as the Irish transition to the ACC.
Star of the Game: You could go with either Peyton Siva (14 points, six assists, one turnover) or Russ Smith (20 points, six assists) so the point here is that Louisville’s backcourt is playing at the level some thought it would be all season long. If you recall, Siva carried this team to a Big East title last year in this building and parlayed that into a Final Four appearance. Louisville needs Smith to score and Siva to create in order to succeed and it is getting just that through two games in this tournament.