RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—A year ago, Louisville’s first trip to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 looked like it would be just a brief stop on the way to the regional final. Instead the Cardinals blew an 18-point lead and were left wondering how everything went wrong.
Now the Cardinals have returned to the regional semifinals, another step in their bid to develop a consistently elite program. But they’re trying to focus solely on the challenge of one game against Baylor on Saturday instead of the big-picture significance of getting back here again.
“We’re not putting any extra pressure on trying to get to an Elite Eight or anything like that,” second-year coach Jeff Walz said Friday. “We’re just trying to make sure we take care of business (Saturday).”
Louisville (31-4) is the No. 3 seed in the Raleigh Regional and has won 10 of 11 games in the past six weeks, with the only loss coming against unbeaten Connecticut in the Big East tournament championship game.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the program’s progress that there isn’t that much being made of a return to the round of 16. Instead, the Cardinals know they have the talent to keep going behind seniors Angel McCoughtry (23.3 points per game) and Candyce Bingham (12 points, seven rebounds). They now have the experience, too, after last year’s slip-up in this spot.
“Of course we think about it because we were in this position last year and we lost it,” Bingham said. “We’ve been in this position before, so Angel and myself will lead this team and just try not to do the little things we did last year.”
Last season, the fourth-seeded Cardinals jumped all over top-seeded North Carolina in the New Orleans Regional and built a 37-19 lead in the first 13 1/2 minutes. But the Tar Heels—a tested group who had been to two straight Final Fours—steadily cut into that margin, pulling to within 46-37 by halftime before pushing ahead by as many as 10 points late in a 78-74 victory.
The mistake in that game, Walz said, was how his team grew tentative with the lead.
“I’ve told our kids as soon as I got the job here, that once you get to the Sweet 16, it’s not necessarily the best basketball team that wins,” he said. “It’s the team that gets a break here or there. You’ve got to create your own opportunities. You’ve got to make sure you come out and play 40 minutes hard and dive for every loose ball and get the 50-50 plays.”
Louisville cruised past Liberty to open the tournament then beat LSU in Baton Rouge 62-52 in the second round. Baylor (29-5), the region’s No. 2 seed, has had a much tougher time getting here.
The Bears survived an overtime scare from No. 15 seed Texas-San Antonio in the first round, then needed a last-second basket from Kelli Griffin to beat South Dakota State 60-58 in the second round.
Those close games have only been the most recent trying moments in a rough few weeks for the Bears. First they lost leading scorer Danielle Wilson (15 points, 9.6 rebounds) to a knee injury in late February. Then coach Kim Mulkey missed the tournament opener after being hospitalized due to aftereffects of surgery to remove a kidney stone two days earlier.
Now Rachel Allison is iffy for the Louisville game. The senior hurt her left knee late in the South Dakota State game, but returned only to re-injure the left ankle she had hurt earlier this year. Allison said Friday she intends to play, but Mulkey didn’t sound so certain.
Still, it’s apparent Mulkey is proud of her team’s resilience.
“This team has wrapped itself around my heart as a coach because they win in spite of,” Mulkey said. “They win in spite of all the things they have no control over.”
In their first game without Wilson, Baylor lost by 24 points at Kansas. But the Bears have won six straight since, including a run to the Big 12 Conference tournament championship. The average margin of victory in that stretch has been about five points per game.
“I feel like it’s been a blessing in disguise,” senior Jessica Morrow said. “It’s made us stronger. I’ve learned many life lessons from this year alone with the things we’ve had to deal with. A lot of people didn’t know and probably didn’t care. I feel like we just have pushed through a lot and made it through a lot and persevered through a lot.”