ATLANTA -- There was a point in Saturday's game against tough Wichita State, Louisville's Russ Smith admitted Sunday, when he and the rest of the Cardinals looked at each other and came to a sudden realization: "Oh, my God, it's not working."
The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament trailed by 12 and was facing elimination. But bench players such as Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson hit big shots, forward Chane Behanan chipped in and the press kicked into gear to carry Louisville to the title game against Michigan Monday night at the Georgia Dome.
"That's what team is about," said Smith, the NCAA Tournament's leading scorer with a 25.0 average.
He scored 21 but shot only 6-for-17. Now, facing a Wolverines offense that is the most potent in the tourney and is led by Wooden Award winner Trey Burke, Smith needs to regain his identity as "Russdiculous."
That's the nickname given the mercurial Smith by Rick Pitino, whose first two seasons with the Brooklyn guard were an emotional roller coaster until the two reached an accommodation and the coach finally put Smith in the starting lineup this season. As a sophomore, Smith considered transferring to Manhattan.
"Coach is starting to appreciate me because I'm making winning plays," he said. "In the middle of my sophomore year, we hit that little bumpy road, and we had a lot of meetings. Coach made it very clear to me what he was about. So I came back and tried to prove to him that I'm starter-worthy and could really be very consistent with my scoring and my defense."
That's not to say he never goes off the rails. Peyton Siva laughed at the notion that Smith was out of control last season but now is disciplined.
"Russ has been out of control for both years," Siva said with a smile. "He's just playing at a higher level. The shots are falling. Him being 'Russdiculous' is out of control to many people's eyes. We need that. He's playing great basketball right now."
The roll Smith is enjoying began in the Big East Tournament, where he was MVP, and has carried over much the way another New York guard, the Bronx's Kemba Walker, lifted UConn to the national title. Smith played on the same junior team when Walker was in seventh grade and recalls him scoring 40 points in a 24-minute game with a running clock.
"My dad said, 'If you play like him every game, you'll be good,' " Smith said. "As far as the similarity goes, Kemba has proven himself. I wouldn't compare myself to him because I have that much respect for him."
Another figure of respect in Smith's life, longtime Archbishop Molloy coach Jack Curran, died during the Big East Tournament. Smith said he continues to be inspired by Curran. When he took the Georgia Dome court, Smith noticed Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who played for Curran, and thought of fellow Molloy alums Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson, who have been in touch with him.
"It just means a lot," he said. "The Molloy unit is really together, and that gives me more incentive to win this whole thing."