NEW YORK – Never mind making shots. Villanova had a hard enough time hanging onto the ball against Louisville's dynamic defense.
Russ Smith scored 28 points in a bittersweet homecoming, leading No. 4 Louisville into the Big East tournament semifinals with a 74-55 victory over the Wildcats on Thursday night only hours after the death of his esteemed high school coach.
The defending champion Cardinals (27-5) harassed Villanova into 25 turnovers that led to 27 points.
"We couldn't get the ball over halfcourt," coach Jay Wright said. "Their guards were in us, man. They did a heck of a job. That takes a lot of effort. They were very, very good."
JayVaughn Pinkston had 21 points for the seventh-seeded Wildcats (20-13), confident they'll receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament Sunday thanks to a string of high-profile wins against top-notch opponents. Mouphtaou Yarou added 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"I think we've got a good enough resume, but I haven't followed it to know it well enough," Wright said. "We'll regroup on Saturday, and then we'll see where we are."
Despite the loss, the Wildcats do indeed appear to have solid NCAA credentials. They have three wins over top 5 teams this season, plus a victory over Marquette, which shared the Big East championship with Louisville and Georgetown.
One of those big wins was against then-No. 5 Louisville 73-64 on Jan. 22 to end a three-game slide and turn their season around. But this time, it was a totally different story.
"Their guards completely dominated the game," Wright said. "That's our weakness as a team. We don't have that jet guard that can just break down a defense. ... I think our inexperience as a team definitely showed."
Villanova made seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before missing out last season with only 13 wins. The Wildcats beat St. John's 66-53 in their tournament opener Wednesday night to reach 20 wins for the eighth time in nine seasons.
Luke Hancock added 12 points off the bench for second-seeded Louisville, which has won eight straight — seven by at least 14 points. Peyton Siva, the tournament MVP last year, scored 10.
After the game, the Cardinals received a surprise visit from President Bill Clinton. A longtime basketball fan, he and coach Rick Pitino have been friendly for years, since Pitino was at Kentucky and introduced Clinton on campus.
"We got the chance to take a lot of pictures. It was a big treat for our guys," Pitino said. "It was a lot of fun. ... He was just telling a lot of stories."
Back home in New York, Smith received sad news early in the day about Jack Curran, the longtime coaching great at Archbishop Molloy High School, who died Thursday at 82. He was among the nation's winningest prep coaches in basketball and baseball.
"It was really hard for me for about 45 minutes when I was on the bus crying and stuff," Smith said. "It was almost heartbreaking to think about it.
"Today was definitely Coach Curran day for me, and it will be the rest of my life," he added. "I'm going to miss him. He was everything to me, and to my mom, my family. He treated everyone with respect. He taught me a lot of things."
Pitino huddled his players after their morning shootaround and informed them of Curran's death, then led the team in a prayer.
"Russ had a heavy heart tonight," said Pitino, who also called Curran a good friend. "I just told Russ we have to play this tournament and the NCAAs for Coach Curran."
A first-team All-Big East selection, Smith was his usual frenetic self on the court, an energetic whirlwind of speed and steals and jump shots to go along with his maddening turnovers and wild drives to the basket. He hit 10 of 11 free throws and shot 7 of 12 from the field, including 4 for 6 from 3-point range.
The 6-foot junior guard went diving past photographers in pursuit of a loose ball less than 2 minutes in and crashed hard into the basket support when he was fouled on a fast-break dunk attempt. Smith hurt his ankle and came up limping, but stayed in the game.
He had seven points and one of Louisville's eight steals in the first half as the feisty Cardinals forced Villanova into a whopping 18 turnovers before the break, including six in the first 3:31. The 25 total turnovers for the Wildcats, who were averaging 15.4 per game, matched a season high.
Pressing and trapping all over the court, Louisville tipped balls, forced tie-ups, got 5-second calls and created all kinds of general havoc for the flustered Wildcats, who wound up using several timeouts in tight spots just to prevent potential giveaways.
Even when Pinkston appeared to be free for a dunk after Villanova broke the press, Siva sprinted back and slapped the ball out of bounds. Pitino said the Cardinals had 38 deflections by halftime and 58 overall, an all-time high on the special chart his assistants keep.
"That's never happened in my 80 years of coaching. So it was an incredible thing to witness. Very, very active," Pitino said. "I think we were just very intense. We were really quick. We're fast."
Louisville went into the locker room with a 30-21 lead and extended the margin to 20 as Smith scored 11 points in the first 9½ minutes of the second half on a trio of 3s and a fast-break finger roll off his own steal at midcourt.
Louisville has most of its key players back from last year's Final Four team, and Wright thinks that gives the Cardinals a big edge.
"This team could win a national championship," he said. "You take their talent and then put on top of that the fact that they've been there, that experience is so valuable."