By Jay Betsill
DALLAS — The stage was set for an all-time classic evening on the campus of SMU as the Mustangs (23-7, 12-5 AAC ) hosted the American Athletic Conference-leading and defending national champion Louisville Cardinals (25-5, 14-3 AAC) before a record-seventh sellout crowd at the newly renovated Moody Coliseum.
On a night that featured a celebrity-laden who’s who crowd including Dallas Cowboys legendary Hall of Fame, and three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Troy Aikman, current Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten, head coach Jason Garrett, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, former Dallas Mavericks guard Michael Finley, and the 43rd President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, it was Louisville guard Russ Smith who would emerge as the star of the show. Smith would overcome a stomach illness to go 6-for-6 from beyond the three-point line and score 22 of his 26 points in the second half to carry the Cardinals to an 84-71 comeback victory.
“He just came through in a big way,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “That was a Michael Jordan-type performance in terms of being sick and gutting it out.”
SMU had already defeated three Top 25 teams at home this season, with wins over UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati and was looking to cap off its first undefeated season ever at Moody Coliseum. With the crowd providing an electric atmosphere at tipoff, the Mustangs took off out of the gates to an 18-5 lead and what was a 26-12 lead sputtered into a 32-30 halftime deficit.
“You can see why they’re a championship team. They started off poorly, and we might have played at an unbelievably high level early,” SMU coach Larry Brown said. “We weren’t prepared the way they were, didn’t handle the press, didn’t handle their intensity at all.”
The battle of the two Hall of Fame coaches pitting Brown (the only coach to ever win both an NBA title, 2004 with the Detroit Pistons, and NCAA Men’s Basketball title, 1988 with the University of Kansas) against Pitino (the only coach to ever win NCAA titles with two different schools — 1996 with Kentucky and 2013 with Louisville) got as close as a Cardinals 55-54 lead with 7:57 remaining in the game, but the Mustangs could not overcome Smith’s outside shooting.
The SMU fans were all clad in white ‘Moody Magic’ t-shirts and had two volumes for the evening: loud and louder. It was certainly one of the hottest tickets on the DFW sports scene with the long-sold out game’s tickets on the secondary market topping out in the neighborhood of $1250 for admission to the 7,000-seat arena. With the final seconds ticking away, rather than dribbling the clock out, Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell matched the SMU’s crowd’s intensity with a thunderous dunk that shook the goal and emphatically reminded SMU who the defending champions were and that the better team won on this night.
“I’m real proud of our guys because this was a real tough environment,” Pitino told reporters, before adding with a big smile, “Obviously they serve alcohol here.”
Louisville is guaranteed at least a share of the first AAC title with a victory at home Saturday against No. 19 UConn. SMU, looking for its first NCAA tournament berth since 1993, wraps up its regular season Saturday at Memphis.