LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Russ Smith won't have to tweet any apologies after last night.
Smith, Louisville's leading scorer at 18.3 points per game entering Thursday night's game, got much of the blame for the Cardinals' 103-100 loss in five overtimes at Notre Dame last Saturday. He made just 4 of 19 shots from the field and missed at the end of four of the overtimes. Afterward, he tweeted an apology to fans for his play.
But Thursday night, after a poor first half when he scored just three points and was 0 of 5 from the field, Smith lit it up in the second half, scoring 12 straight Louisville points during one stretch and finishing with 24 as the 12th-ranked Cardinals beat St. John's 72-58 in front of 22,086 fans in the KFC Yum! Center.
Louisville improved to 20-5 and moved into a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big East at 8-4. St. John's, which lost for the third time in its last four games, fell to 15-10, 7-6 and is in serious danger of missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid.
Louisville led 32-23 at halftime after the teams traded runs in the first 20 minutes. The Cardinals finished the half with an 8-0 surge and had earlier runs of 11-0 and 8-0. St. John's had a 13-4 spurt.
The Red Storm had the first run of the second half, opening with a 10-0 charge as the Cards went almost 5 1/2 minutes without a point. Wayne Blackshear hit two free throws with 14:36 left to put Louisville back in front at 35-34. Then Smith took over, scoring his team's next 12 points as Louisville took command. When Smith's run was over, the Cards led 46-38. St. John's got no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
St. John's coach Rico Hines, who was filling in for Steve Lavin (on bereavement leave after the death of his father Saturday), spent the majority of his postgame press conference tipping his hat to Smith.
"We fought hard, we played hard, but you have to hand it to Louisville, particularly to Russ Smith," Hines said. "He's an All-American, and he did what All-Americans do. He took over the game in the second half. We couldn't stop him. He's a one-man fast break.
"We didn't have an answer for him. We changed our defenses from man to zone to different kinds of zones, and he was able to get a piece of the paint every time. We lost him in transition a couple of times."
In addition to his 24 points, Smith had six rebounds, four assists and three steals in 29 minutes.
"He gave us the spark we needed," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Now we just have to improve his play on the road."
Peyton Siva added 12 points and six assists for Louisville, and Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng each had 10 points. Dieng also had 17 rebounds as the Cardinals had a 45-37 advantage on the boards. Behanan added eight rebounds.
Phil Greene IV led St. John's with 21 points, 14 of which came in the second half. D'Angelo Harrison added 18 points but just five came in the second half.
Chris Obekpa didn't score but had 12 rebounds and three blocked shots for St. John's. He's second in the country at 4.5 blocked shots per game.
"I was real pleased with the win," Pitino said. "I'm very excited about it. I was also very impressed with St. John's. For such a young team they showed a lot of poise for playing in front of 22,000 fans. They were not intimidated. They played a gritty game."
Hines acknowledged that his team is young. St. John's started three sophomores, a freshman and a junior, then played just two reserves, a freshman and a sophomore. But he refused to use that as an excuse.
"We don't want to use young as a crutch," Hines said. "Everybody knows we're young; we know we're young. ... We're not going to use that as an excuse. We just didn't execute down the stretch and, like I said, Russ Smith did a good job of taking over the game. That was it."
NOTES: Lavin missed his second straight game after the death of his father last Saturday. The university said the coach ws attending to family matters. Lavin missed all but four games last season while recovering from prostate surgery. ... The NCAA and NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) are unveiling a portrait of former Louisville coach Denny Crum as part of their celebration of 75 years of March Madness. Portraits of every coach who won a national title have been commissioned. Crum won two, in 1980 and '86. Two hundred fifty limited edition reproductions of each portrait will be auctioned off after the season, with the proceeds to benefit the NABC Foundation.