Pat Connaughton and Luke Hancock battle in the last meeting.

BIG EAST Semifinals Preview: No. 24 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Louisville

March 15, 2013

NEW YORK – Louisville and Notre Dame took part in one of college basketball’s greatest games last month, but the Cardinals’ defense made sure there would be far less drama when the teams met less than a week ago.

Now, Louisville will try to end the Fighting Irish’s stay in the BIG EAST.

The fourth-ranked Cardinals face No. 24 Notre Dame in the conference tournament semifinals Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

Six players logged at least 50 minutes, and 10 scored in double figures as then-No. 25 Notre Dame knocked off then-No. 11 Louisville 104-101 in five overtimes on Feb. 9, making for an instant classic.

The following meeting lacked suspense, though, as the Cardinals (27-5) held the Irish to 39.3 percent shooting in a 73-57 home win Saturday. With Notre Dame bolting for the ACC next season, Friday’s matchup will be the last with both being members of the BIG EAST.

Louisville, the second seed and defending tournament champion, will join the Irish in the ACC in 2014. It has won eight straight by an average of 15.8 points since last month’s loss in South Bend, including a 74-55 victory over Villanova in Thursday’s quarterfinals.

Russ Smith, who was notified hours earlier his high school coach had passed away, scored a game-high 28 points while fighting off a twisted ankle suffered after being fouled on a fast-break attempt.

“I twisted it pretty bad, and coach taped it,” Smith said. “I went back out there and put everything aside. We’ve got a BIG EAST game going on.”

Smith did show his erratic play at times and committed five turnovers, but he hit 7 of 12 from the field and coach Rick Pitino lauded his performance.

“He was brilliant because he passed the ball, he played awesome defense, shot the ball well, made great decisions,” Pitino said. “Even a couple of his turnovers were trying to get people the ball.”

Louisville forced 25 turnovers and held Villanova to 38.9 percent shooting, marking the fifth straight game it has held an opponent under 40 percent from the field.

“I think we win with our defense,” Pitino said. “I think we were just very intense. We were really quick. We’re fast. It was an all-time high.”

Gorgui Dieng scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds while Peyton Siva added 13 points versus Notre Dame on Saturday, and they’ll look to have another solid performance against an Irish team coming off a 73-65 win over No. 12 Marquette on Thursday.

Pat Connaughton scored 18 points on 6 of 10 shooting – all 3-pointers – and Jerian Grant added 17 as the Irish (25-8) broke open a tight game late.

The sixth-seeded Irish also defeated 11th-seeded Rutgers 69-61 on Wednesday.

“We’re thrilled to be playing in our fourth straight semifinal,” coach Mike Brey said. “I know no one else in the league has done that. We wonder what it would be like to play on Saturday because our program has never played there.”

Five of the last seven meetings with Louisville have gone to overtime, and Brey expects another tough battle Friday.

“Here we go again,” Brey said. “When the games have been in overtime, that’s when we’ve gotten our wins. When they’ve won, they’ve usually thumped us. I hope it’s overtime. They’re really good. We just played them last Saturday, and they’re playing with a great rhythm, and it comes down to taking care of the ball.”

Louisville has won both BIG EAST tournament meetings, including a 64-50 victory in last year’s semifinals.