"I don't have to tell you guys we didn't play good basketball tonight," coach Rick Pitino said following his Cardinals' 70-60 victory over Western Kentucky on Friday night. "But we haven't been playing good basketball the last three games."
Louisville (12-0) trailed the Hilltoppers (4-9) by eight points with 12 minutes remaining, but the Cardinals reeled off 14 straight points, half from Smith. He finished with 23 points and his 3-pointer from the left corner off an inbounds pass gave Louisville the lead for good at 52-50 with 6:53 remaining.
"He's winning us games on just pure intensity, pure heart," Pitino said of the 6-foot sophomore guard. "He's the reason we're winning but we've got to get the rest of the guys playing like that."
Smith's 23 points were just one off his career high that came in Louisville's 95-87 win over Memphis on Dec. 17. That performance earned Big East player of the week honors for Smith, who appeared in just 17 games in his first season.
"Russ Smith saved us again," teammate Peyton Siva said. "He makes some mistakes coming off the bench but his energy and his hard work are paying off."
Gorgui Dieng had 13 points and 15 rebounds -- his fifth straight double-double -- for the Cardinals, who entered the game as one of the nation's six unbeaten Division I teams. Kyle Kuric added 15 points, 12 coming in the first half.
Trailing 50-47 following a layup by Crook with 8:49 remaining, Louisville reeled off 14 straight points, half from Smith. Western Kentucky went scoreless until Crook's layup made it 61-52 with 2:21 to play. That started a 7-0 run as Nigel Snipes' 3-pointer from the right corner made it 61-57 at the 1:14 mark. Western Kentucky would draw no closer as Louisville scored its last nine points on free throws.
Smith's 3 from the corner off an inbounds pass gave Louisville a 52-50 lead with 6:53 remaining.
Louisville managed only nine points in the game's opening 10 minutes. The Cardinals faced their largest deficit of the season at 22-9 following a two-handed dunk by George Fant with 9:57 left.
Louisville then sprung a 10-2 run, capped by Kuric's four-point play after being fouled by Fant. But WKU responded with 3s from Kevin Kaspar on consecutive possessions to push the Hilltoppers' lead to 30-19 with 6:43 in the first half.
The Cardinals gained their first lead of the game at 33-32 with 2:40 remaining as part of an 18-4 run to close the half, highlighted by three straight Louisville 3-pointers. Dieng's up-and-under layup finished the half for the Cardinals, giving them a 37-34 lead.
The Cardinals started the second half much as they did the first, surrendering the lead to the Hilltoppers off 10 straight points. The Cardinals failed to score until Siva's scoop shot in the lane dropped at the 14:16 mark to cut the WKU lead to 44-39.
Pitino said forward Rakeem Buckles pulled a groin in the game. Louisville hosts No. 16 Georgetown in its Big East opener on Dec. 28.
The 12-0 start for Louisville is its best in 37 years and puts it one game off the school record set by three teams, most recently in 1974-75. The victory was Louisville's 20th straight at home.
The Cardinals' performance Friday was markedly different from last year's effort. In their final game before Christmas, Louisville shot a season-high 64.6 percent from the field and throttled the Hilltoppers 114-82.
Friday's game was played as the 10th annual Billy Minardi Classic, honoring Pitino's brother-in-law who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.