LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Russ Smith has seen enough valleys in his Louisville career to know the importance of returning to the peak in the next game.
Thursday night provided another example of the heights the Cardinals guard can reach when his game is on.
Smith scored 21 second-half points, including 12 straight over a 3:03 stretch that put No. 12 Louisville ahead for good and helped the Cardinals beat St. John's 72-58. He finished with a game-high 24, a huge recovery from Saturday night's 104-101, five-overtime loss at Notre Dame that included several ill-advised shots.
The performance stuck with Smith for a couple of days but he was able to put it behind him with a hot stretch including consecutive 3-pointers.
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In a game of spurts for both teams -- who traded the lead five times -- Smith led the last and crucial one for Louisville. The junior guard's dozen points led the Cardinals' 14-5 run for a 46-38 lead.
"It felt really good," said Smith, who shot 5 of 13 from the field but was 12 of 14 from the free throw line. "It felt like I was young again. On the first one, it felt good coming off. But then I came off the screen and they sagged and I said I'm going to take it again, and that went in. And then I drove, ball faked, and [D'Angelo] Harrison jumped and I'm going to take the banker.
"I just took what they gave me. In the first half, I didn't do a good job of reading the defense."
Peyton Siva added 12 points, Chane Behanan 10 and Gorgui Dieng 10 with a career-high 17 rebounds as the Cardinals (20-5, 8-4) climbed into a three-way tie for second place in the Big East Conference. Louisville dominated the paint 32-16 and outrebounded St. John's 45-37.
"Coach said if we learn our lesson from the game against Notre Dame and it helps us to win a lot of games, then it was worth it," Dieng said of Louisville's inside game.
Phil Greene IV scored 21 points for St. John's (15-10, 7-6), losers of three of four. Harrison finished with 18.
Both teams shot 23 of 62 from the field (37 percent). But Louisville's inside dominance, Smith's offensive lift and some timely turnovers forced by the Cardinals helped them pull away in a rough and sometimes uneven game.
Right now, Louisville needs to win every game it can to keep pace in the conference. And Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, who said beforehand that his team needs to win their seven remaining games to claim the regular season title, was glad that his mercurial guard provided it.
"I thought he gave us the spurt we needed," Pitino said. "Now we've got to get him to play that way on the road."
St. John's was coming off a 77-58 loss at Syracuse, but the Red Storm had built momentum over their previous eight games. They had averaged nearly 72 points per game in their six wins compared to just 57 in losses to the Orange and Georgetown.
That latter statistic was telling as St. John's failed to break 60 points again.
"We just didn't execute down the stretch," said Red Storm assistant coach Rico Hines, who ran the team for a second game while head coach Steve Lavin was away following the death of his father last weekend.
"Russ Smith did a good job of taking over the game. That was it."
Midway through the first half, however, Louisville failed to contain Red Storm shooters Greene and Harrison, who combined for 13 points during a 16-6 run that put them ahead 19-16. Louisville's combination of bad shots and bad passes helped spark St. John's transition game and those two finished them off with jumpers including one each from behind the arc.
Louisville responded with an 8-0 run ignited by a couple of turnovers and three jumpers by Siva, who had eight points in the half along with Behanan. The senior guard finished another 8-0 spurt by the Cardinals over the final 1:41 of the half by driving the length of the court and slicing through for a layup at the horn to provide a 32-23 lead.
"I just tried to get our team going," Siva said of his first half. "We weren't having a lot of rhythm at the time executing our plays, getting to the end of our plays. So I tried to take it upon myself to really push the pace and really get it going and get my teammates confidence back up. They were sagging I just took my open jump shots."
Despite shooting just 39 percent (14 of 36), the Cardinals dominated the lane 20-2 mostly on dunks by Behanan and Wayne Blackshear.
Harrison had 13 and Greene seven in the half for St. John's, which hit just 9 of 26 from the field (35 percent). Unfazed, the Red Storm scored the first 10 points of the second half to go back ahead before Louisville answered with yet another spurt (12-4) led by Smith, who scored 10 straight to put the Cardinals back up 44-35.