There was Mario, Luigi and the Lion from the Wizard of Oz. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former President George W. Bush. One of the most eclectic and loudest crowds in college basketball piled into SMU's Moody Coliseum on Wednesday night hoping to watch history.
Louisville had other plans.
Russ Smith scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half and Chris Jones set a career-high with 21 points, as the No. 11 Cardinals pulled away late for a 84-71 victory over SMU on Wednesday night.
Louisville (25-5, 14-3 AAC) is one win away from clinching at least a share of the first American Athletic Conference in history. The defending national champs, who have run into far more intraconference trouble than most expected in the preseason, saw some of those issues fall by the wayside against SMU.
A game after shooting 4-of-23 from beyond the arc in a loss to Memphis, the Cardinals soared from three against SMU. They knocked down a sterling 13 of 23 shots from long range, including six from Smith.
Almost nonexistent for the first 20 minutes, Smith's shot came alive down the stretch. The senior guard scored 13 points in three minutes as part of a 16-7 run that stretched the Cardinals' lead to double digits with just over three minutes remaining. That run came after a first half in which he hit only one of five shots from the field and allowed SMU to gain momentum.
Wednesday night was the biggest game in at least two decades for SMU. With a win, the Mustangs would complete the first undefeated home campaign in school history just two years into Larry Brown's tenure. Brown, the Naismith Hall of Fame coach, took over the fledgling Mustangs program and has already created a basketball-hungry culture.
The student section more resembled something you'd see at Cameron Indoor Stadium than a program that hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1993. Unfortunately, a promising start was soon overcome by critical mistakes.
Guards Sterling Brown and Nic Moore each picked up their fourth foul within the first five minutes of the second half, putting a SMU team already low on scoring talent in a bad way. Brown was the team's leading scorer in the game before going out, and Moore is the Mustangs' leading scorer for the season.
The Mustangs also turned the ball over 23 times, costing them key possessions on a night they shot over 50 percent from the floor. Nick Russell led the way with 18 points, while forward Markus Kennedy added 14.
Brown's first words in the postgame huddle will probably center on what could have been without the mistakes.
Swarming ball-handlers as soon as they crossed midcourt and flustering the Cardinals bigs down low, SMU spent much of its first half playing near-perfect defense. Louisville started the game with three turnovers in its first four possessions, went nearly six minutes without a point after a Jones three with 17:14 remaining in the half and looked totally ill-equipped to handle the pressure.
The Cardinals finished the first half shooting 34.5 percent. They had 10 turnovers. Smith, almost entirely absent from the game plan, saw Jones hold the offense together. Jones scored 13 of his 21 points in the first half, with he and Montrezl Harrell being the only two Louisville starters in solid form.
Yet, even in the first half, the Mustangs' mistakes came back to bite them.
Playing with Moore mostly limited by ankle issues, ball-handling was a major issue. Russell coughed the ball up eight times in the first half alone, struggling to dribble through or pass out of Louisville double-teams. The Mustangs turned the ball over 15 times, including a series of late gaffes that allowed the Cardinals to take a halftime lead.
Down by as many as 14 points, Louisville held SMU without a field goal for the last 7:08 before halftime and came roaring back. The Cardinals did most of their damage at the free-throw line and beyond the arc, with Jones and Luke Hancock leading the way.
Overall, the game was a solid indicator of where these programs stand on the national hierarchy. Louisville was unflappable even when things started to go awry. Jon Rothstein pointed out the Cardinals have the firepower to make another Final Four run:
Louisville has looked like a Final Four team for the last 30 mins. A third straight trip to NCAA's third weekend could be in the Cards.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 6, 2014
SMU, mistake-prone and wide-eyed, looked every bit like a team not quite ready for the limelight.
The Mustangs and Cardinals will now take to scoreboard watching Thursday night for Memphis-Cincinnati. Now knocked out of the first-place running, SMU will hope for a Bearcats victory to make its seeding life easier. Louisville, which is tied with Cincinnati in the conference loss column, will hope for the opposite.
Either way, the inaugural AAC tournament is shaping up to be one of the nation's best. Who could have possibly thought that in the preseason?
|Stephan Van Treese, C||C|
|Luke Hancock, F||C|
|Montrezl Harrell, F||B|
|Russ Smith, G||A-|
|Chris Jones, G||A-|
|Mangok Mathiang, F||C|
|Terry Rozier, G||C|
|Wayne Blackshear, G||C|
|Markus Kennedy, F||C|
|Shawn Williams, F||C+|
|Sterling Brown, G||C+|
|Nic Moore, G||C|
|Nick Russell, G||B-|
|Cannen Cunningham, C||C|
|Ben Moore, F||C+|
|Ryan Manuel, G||C+|
|Crandall Head, G||C|
|Keith Frazier, G||C|
Players of the Game: Chris Jones (G, Louisville) and Nick Russell (G, SMU)
For a long while in the first half, it looked like Louisville was about to get blown out of the building. The offense was stilted, a never-ending series of contested shots and turnovers. The defense was cratering, with SMU breaking traps and getting to the rim with ease.
Jones rarely gets much credit sharing a backcourt with Smith, but he deserves it for holding the fort down on Wednesday. Without the diminutive junior pressuring Russell on traps and finding his range from beyond the arc, it's possible the Cardinals never find themselves back in the game.
That may seem like faint praise, considering most of his effectiveness came in the first 20 minutes. After scoring 13 before halftime, he finished with 21. Harrell and Smith (especially Smith), the two stars on this roster, understandably took over in the second half as focal points.
But Jones was excellent in the first half during a period when the entire team around him was crumbling. That gets him the nod here.
As for SMU, it's difficult to choose a single player. At times, it felt like the crowd was a bigger star than any individual player. The Mustangs were without discipline for much of the contest, committing unnecessary turnovers and fouls. For a team with a small margin of error, SMU sure had a ton.
Russell epitomized that more than anyone. It's hard to have eight turnovers and be the best player on a team. His total inability to handle the press played a huge part in Louisville getting back in the game in the second half.
Still, he almost totally made up for it in the second. With Moore and Brown on the bench due to foul trouble, Russell began fearlessly attacking the basket and forcing Cardinals defenders into fouls. He also found range on his shot and worked fluidly as a primary ball-handler.
Had it not been for the turnovers, perhaps we'd remember this as one of the best games of Russell's season. As it is, it goes down as an important but imperfect performance.
Neither Louisville nor SMU finish the regular season with a gimme. The Cardinals return home Saturday to take on No. 19 Connecticut, while the Mustangs leave Dallas for a road showdown at No. 20 Memphis that same afternoon.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: