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Rick Pitino can only laugh at Russ Smith's antics after win over New Mexico

By Ben Golliver | Blogger
By Ben Golliver

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Russ Smith brought the highs and lows on Saturday, and Rick Pitino decided that laughter made the best medicine, at least once the victory was in hand.

"There's an Academy Award-wining moving called One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," Pitino joked after his No. 4 seed Cardinals defeated the No. 5 seed New Mexico Lobos 59-56 in a West Regional Round of 32 game on Saturday night. "Coaching this young man is going to make me re-make that movie.When you coach Russ Smith, you have a nervous breakdown on every possession."

Who could blame Pitino for his hearty belly laughs and headshakes of disbelief after this one?After all, Smith airballed a first half dunk, talked back with such annoying regularity during one timeout that Pitino hinted he was on the verge of violence, and danced behind his coach during a post-game television interview.

But the New York guard also scored a team-high 17 points, knocking down all three of his 3-pointers, as Louisville escaped with the victory despite some tense late-game moments.

"He always comes up big for us," Pitino said. "When we struggle for points he's there. I'm really proud of him."

Smith's three treys paced Louisville, who shot 7-for-15 from deep as a team.

"Coaching him is about as much fun because you really don't know what's going to happen on the next play," Pitino said. "He bailed us out with threes tonight. If you look at the statistics, he's probably shooting 26 percent. He's really not a three-point shooter, he's a 2-point shooter, but he made them tonight."

The two sat side-by-side during their post-game press conference, giggling and finishing each other's sentences like high school BFFs.

"Me and coach have a lot in common," Smith said. "We're both from New York, I just like to learn from him. He's always telling me to make the right play. I try my best, but it sometimes doesn't work."

That "sometimes" included a breakaway dunk attempt that slipped out of his hands -- never hitting the rim -- with just under three minutes remaining in the first half. It was about as head-slapping as big time postseason college basketball can get.

"To show you how funny Russ is, I told him: 'Any 5-foot-10 guy from New York City can dunk a ball. Just lay it up and put it in.' Then I told him after the game, I said Russ, 'Why would you do that?'He said, 'You're right, coach. I should have never put vaseline on my hands before the game. It slipped out.'"

Pitino looked out at the media crowd like a stand-up comic milking a punchline.

"This is what I'm coaching every day."

Smith was huge, but he wasn't a one-man show. Junior guard Peyton Siva didn't have a huge stat line -- scoring 6 points and tallying 5 assists -- but a perfectly-timed dump-off to sophomore center Gorgui Dieng sealed the game, giving Louisville a 4-point lead with 32 seconds left.

"[Coach]wanted me to set a pick and roll," Dieng recounted. "He said, 'When you roll, roll hard. When you catch it, just grab it and dunk it.' I did the right things."

"[Siva]made a great move and then he did something that he hasn't done with us in two years," Pitino said, his voice rising. "He came to a jump stop and made the play. That was a great pass. He made big plays down the stretch. He's having a tremendous post-season."

Louisville's defense was solid throughout, too, holding New Mexico to just 5-for-23 from deep and making sure UNM star forward Drew Gordon, who finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds, didn't have much help.

"They made the three point shot better than we made it tonight and I thought that was the difference," Lobos coach Steve Alford said. "You've got to credit Louisville's defense, they're one of the best defensive teams in the country."

Offense. Defense. Clutch plays. Boneheaded ones. It was all that and more for Lousville. A loss likely would have been rage-inducing for Pitino, given some of the circumstances. But his handful of a guard made sure that a punchdrunk Pitino was able to savor a trip to Phoenix for the Sweet 16.

"We have a blast together away from the lines," Pitino concluded. "Between the lines I'm trying to drive them to limits they didn't think they could get to. Russ Smith -- nobody wanted him [out of high school], I don't care what Russ tells you. And here he is."
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