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Sick Smith lifts Cardinals over Ducks

INDIANAPOLIS -- Rick Pitino was trying to explain just how sick Russ Smith was, warning the assembled media during his postgame news conference that they ought to steer clear of the Louisville guard lest they come down with the guard’s “ridiculous cold.”

“We just had to get our guys through it, and hopefully we’ll get better,” Pitino said. “The only problem was, on every timeout Russ is hacking in our faces.”

And on cue, Smith started to cough directly into the microphone.

Pitino just shook his head while Smith tried to stifle the coughing fit.

“Every 30 seconds just like this,” Pitino said. “So keep your distance or you’ll have pneumonia by the morning, like Gorgui [Dieng] and me.”

Asked to explain just how sick he was, Smith downplayed his initial diagnosis of “terribly sick” between more bouts of coughing.

“I’m pretty sick (hack, hack),” Smith said. “It affected my conditioning a lot, but coach just told me I had to dig in.”

(cough, hack, cough)

So this wasn’t exactly Willis Reed limping onto the court, or a fevered Michael Jordan dropping 38 in the NBA Finals. But if this is Smith sick, everyone should want what he has.

In a Sweet 16 game where Louisville just wasn’t itself defensively, Smith played like himself even if he didn’t feel it.

The junior tied his career high with 31 points, scoring in every which way possible -- left-handed, right-handed, easily and with ample degrees of difficulty. He almost single-handedly lifted the Cardinals back into the Elite Eight with a 77-69 win over Oregon.

“We were short of gas tonight and without Russ, we couldn’t win,” Pitino said. “Our defense was porous at best, but Russ carried us.”

This weekend was the elimination game for top seeds -- Indiana lost on Thursday night, Kansas on Friday -- but the overall No. 1 seed is the lone top seed still playing because Smith wouldn’t let his team lose.

It’s not necessarily how the Cards would like to play. Certainly it's not Pitino's choice to win with offense instead of defense. In this tournament, you take your wins any way you can get them -- offensively, defensively, germ-infested.

"I told our guys, 'Guys we don't have it tonight,'" Pitino said. "We're winning with offense and that's great, but we've got to start digging in and getting stops.”

That didn't happen much, or at least not with the frequency the Cards achieved most of this season. Oregon shot 44 percent from the floor and limited everything Louisville usually does to win. The Cards had only 10 points off fast breaks and managed just seven steals.

Kevin Ware said the Ducks guards were “by far the quickest we’ve played this season.”

Every time Louisville looked ready to run away -- a Luke Hancock dagger 3-pointer seemed to be the moment in the second half -- Oregon kept coming. The Ducks even managed to cut the lead to as few as six points late in the game.

Smith made up for every defensive deficiency with his offense.

“Russ Smith is a talented young man,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “When he got going, we didn’t have an answer.”

The Ducks have plenty of company there. Lots of teams haven’t been able to solve the ridiculous riddle that is Smith.

Although he’s arguably the most dominant player on the most dominant team in this NCAA tournament, you won’t find Smith’s name on any draft lists. He doesn’t fit the NBA's models or prototypes. He’s too short, too skinny, and his diminutive stature ironically overshadows his game.

But what Smith does, what he does awfully well, is score. He can find a sliver of space between big men and slice through it so quickly they don’t realize he has been there until he’s headed up the other end of the court.

Louisville outscored Oregon 42-34 in the paint -- most of that was Smith.

“When I’m on the court, I just see little spaces and I try to get to that spot before another defender does,” Smith said. “And if I can beat them to the spot before they slide, that’s how I create some contact and I always try to create some contact because I feel like if I get to the free throw line, that’s the highest-percentage shot that I can have.”

(hack, hack, cough)

When he wasn’t in the game -- all of six minutes since Peyton Siva hit the bench five minutes into the first half with two fouls -- Smith was perched on the lonely stool reserved for the head coach on the raised courts used in domes.

Pitino motioned him there when he brought him out for his first breather.

At the time, it looked like Smith was being put in timeout, left alone and segregated from his teammates below him on the bench.

Turns out he was merely being quarantined.