NEW YORK — Russ Smith figured the best way he could honor Jack Curran on Thursday night was by leading Louisville to a win.
Smith scored 28 points in a bittersweet homecoming, carrying the fourth-ranked Cardinals into the Big East tournament semifinals with a 74-55 victory over Villanova only hours after the death of his esteemed high school coach.
"Today was definitely Coach Curran day for me, and it will be the rest of my life," he said.
Smith and the defending champion Cardinals (27-5) harassed Villanova into 25 turnovers and advanced to play familiar nemesis Notre Dame in the late game Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The 24th-ranked and sixth-seeded Fighting Irish beat third-seeded Marquette 73-65.
Notre Dame outlasted Louisville 104-101 in a five-overtime epic Feb. 9 in South Bend, the Cardinals' only loss in their last 12 games. But last Saturday, Louisville rolled to a 73-57 romp against the Irish at home.
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 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."
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 this season. 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," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We'll regroup on Saturday, and then we'll see where we are."
Back home in New York, Smith received sad news early in the day about 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.
"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 told them about 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. Coach Curran really enjoyed coaching Russ, and I really enjoy coaching Russ, but we both knew what he was all about. So it's very exciting that Russ could have that type of game and honor his coach like that."
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.
"We couldn't get the ball over halfcourt," Wright said. "Their guards were in us, man. They did a heck of job. That takes a lot of effort. They were very, very good."
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.
"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."
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 9 1/2 minutes of the second half on a trio of 3s and a fast-break finger roll off his own steal at midcourt.
Pitino's team is wearing new uniforms specially designed for March Madness, featuring a funky print and short sleeves on the jerseys. The Cardinals took to their unusual digs just fine.
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." Wright said. "You take their talent and then put on top of that the fact that they've been there, that experience is so valuable."
Louisville certainly looked like one of the best teams in the country down the stretch, winning its last seven regular-season games. The Cardinals, who came in forcing 18.5 turnovers per game, have won six straight and eight of nine at Madison Square Garden.
Villanova beat St. John's 66-53 in its tournament opener Wednesday night to reach 20 wins for the eighth time in nine seasons.