LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Louisville sophomore Bria Smith is adjusting well to having the ball in her hands.
Smith scored a career-high 21 points to spark an 81-55 win over DePaul for the No. 10 Cardinals on Sunday. She was 13 of 15 from the free throw line and her all-around performance included seven rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. She had 10 points in the first 9:47 and 14 points and six rebounds in the first half.
“I just always take what’s open,” Smith said. “If a person gives me the lane, I’m going to take it. If a person sucks in on me, I’ll try and kick it out to one of my teammates. I just do what comes with the flow of the game.”
Louisville’s win avenged an 86-80 Jan. 5 loss at DePaul earlier this season. Following that game, Louisville coach Jeff Walz put the ball in Smith’s hands as his point guard, shifting Shoni Schimmel to the wing. Louisville’s only losses since have come at Connecticut and Notre Dame and Smith said she is growing more comfortable in her new role.
“Playing basketball for me is an enjoyment,” Smith said of the transition. “If you throw me anywhere on the court, I’ll try and do my best at every position.”
Smith entered Sunday shooting 58 percent on free throw attempts. Walz said Smith’s growing confidence is showing at the line.
“It’s confidence and finally she is stepping up to the line more confident,” Walz said “She gets to the free throw line a lot for us so if she can continue to do that, then we are going to be in business.”
Smith scored a previous season-high 18 in Louisville’s last outing, a 93-64 loss at No. 2 Notre Dame that snapped a six-game winning streak.
“We tried to shake off the Notre Dame game because we knew that we didn’t go out there as focused as we were supposed to,” Smith said.
Louisville forward Sara Hammond had 17 points and 13 rebounds, her fifth double-double of the season. She summed up her classmate’s game and importance to the team.
“She played aggressive, she played hard. On both ends of the floor, too,” Hammond said. “She’s the most athletic person we have on our team and we really need her athleticism to aggravate the guards on defense.
“And then offense, when she gets to driving the basketball, there’s no way you’re going to stop her. She’s too athletic and too fast.”
The Cardinals (21-5, 9-3 Big East) held DePaul to season-low 25 percent shooting (16 of 65) and dominated inside with a 50-10 advantage on points in the paint.
Chanise Jenkins led the Blue Demons (18-8, 7-5) with 16 points before fouling out with 5:11 remaining. Megan Podkowa had 14 points off the bench. Both were career highs.
The Cardinals held DePaul to just 19 percent shooting in first 20 minutes (6 of 32) but could only muster a 29-23 lead at halftime.
“I really felt good that we were only chasing six at halftime with a really hideous shooting percentage,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. “But then the game really got away from us.”
Louisville came out hot in the second half as Shoni Schimmel sank a three to start the half. Schimmel later helped stretch the lead to 39-26 when she set up Antonita Slaughter’s layup with 17:52 remaining with a no-look pass.
Podkowa’s jumper in the lane off an out-of-bounds play cut the Louisville lead to 50-38 with 13:52 left but DePaul would draw no closer.
Hammond’s layup and free throw off an inbound capped an 8-0 run that put Louisville up 20 with 9:45 to play. The Cardinals pushed the lead to 77-47 with 2:14 left.
DePaul missed its first nine 3-pointers and started 3 of 23 from the field before Jenkins’ triple with 4:42 left in the first half cut the Louisville lead to 23-14. It would be the only 3-pointer for Blue Demons in 14 first-half attempts. They finished 4 of 29 (14 percent) on shots from behind the arc.
The Blue Demons stayed close before the break with nine second-chance points and by holding Louisville to just six points in the final 7:36 of the half. But a Hammond layup to finish the opening half and Schimmel’s three to start the final 20 minutes provided the spark Louisville needed for a second-half blowout.
DePaul’s Katherine Harry, the Big East’s leader with 10.7 rebounds a contest, had eight points and 13 rebounds but was scoreless in the second half.
Louisville senior Monique Reid made her first appearance since Jan. 27, returning from a bone bruise on her left knee. Reid, who scored 25 in the Jan. 5 loss at DePaul, had eight points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes. She exited after coming down awkwardly following a scoring baseline drive with 12:23 left. Louisville coach Jeff Walz said she could have returned but chose to leave her on the bench with a comfortable lead.
DePaul was again without leading scorer Anna Martin, who missed her seventh game after injuring her left knee against Providence on Jan. 19. Martin scored 22 in the Blue Demons’ win over the Cardinals on Jan. 5.