Rick Pitino thinks Russ Smith is the key to the season for No. 10 Louisville, and the shifty guard believes he can help the Cardinals make another long run in March.
He sure looked ready on Wednesday night.
Smith scored 17 points, Peyton Siva had 16 and Louisville pulled away for a 79-58 victory over DePaul that ran its winning streak to four ahead of a big matchup with No. 12 Syracuse this weekend.
"When Russ Smith passes the basketball, we have a big-time chance of being a great team," Pitino said. "When he doesn't and he gambles on defense, we're just a mediocre team. But if we can get him to totally buy in offensively and defensively, we have the makings of a great team, and he did that in the second half."
Smith seemed emboldened by Pitino's challenge.
"If Coach has faith in me, then I have to have faith in myself to get the job done," said Smith, a junior who also had five assists and four rebounds while passing 1,000 career points.
Chane Behanan added 10 points and nine rebounds for the Cardinals (23-5, 11-4 Big East), who held the Blue Demons to 36 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers.
Louisville is unbeaten since it lost 104-101 in five overtimes at Notre Dame on Feb. 9 in the longest regular-season game in Big East history. With the victory over sliding DePaul, the Cardinals moved into a tie with Marquette for second place in the conference behind Georgetown.
Pitino's team meets the Orange in the Carrier Dome, and Notre Dame faces Marquette in a big slate of games for the Big East on Saturday.
Brandon Young scored 22 points and Cleveland Melvin had 20 for the Blue Demons (11-17, 2-13), who have dropped three in a row and 12 of 13 overall.
"I think we just let up," Young said. "We can go as hard as we want to. We just kept letting them do what they like to do. I don't think we stopped it real well."
Melvin converted a layup to get DePaul within eight with 7:22 remaining, but the Cardinals responded with a 10-0 run to put it away. Siva started the key spurt with two free throws and closed it out with a layup that made it 71-53 with 3:33 remaining.
"Every good team is going to make a run," Smith said. "They jumped out on us early and then we responded pretty well. I guess it was the simple fact we obviously didn't want to be embarrassed, so guys stepped up and we made some big plays."
Young made a 3-pointer with 3 minutes remaining to extend DePaul's streak with at least one to 607 games. But the Blue Demons were just 1 for 9 from long range.
Montrezl Harrell scored 11 points for the Cardinals, and Gorgui Dieng finished with 10.
Louisville and DePaul combined for 23 turnovers, 19 personal fouls and a slew of missed layups during a frenetic first half that included several conferences between the referees and upset coaches trying to angle for calls during the physical play.
"The game shouldn't be that physical," Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell said. "It shouldn't be that much more physical than an NBA game, particularly as we get close to tournament time. We want games to be entertaining and teams to score and that kind of thing. It shouldn't be that physical."
Louisville was leading 21-16 when the 6-foot-6 Behanan stole a pass near midcourt, dribbled in and threw down a massive dunk over DePaul guard Worrel Clahar. Behanan was originally whistled for an offensive foul but it was changed to a block on Clahar after a short discussion by the officials, leading to a spirited argument from Purnell.
"When I stole the ball it was kind of weird how he didn't try to come up and guard me. He just stayed there," Behanan said. "I don't know. I drew a check that I cashed."
Behanan then made the free throw to give the Cardinals an eight-point lead with 4:21 remaining. The sophomore forward tacked on another jumper and Luke Hancock hit two foul shots with 43 seconds left in the first half as Louisville carried a 34-25 lead into the break.
The Cardinals shot just 38 percent in the first half, but held the Blue Demons to 27 percent shooting. Neither team had a 3-pointer at the break, combining to miss 10 shots from long range.