It feels strange to call a matchup against #19 NC State last Thursday a must-win game for Louisville. The Cardinals are certainly in no danger of missing the tournament, sitting at 20-4 coming into the game, and 3rd place in the ACC. And a loss to a ranked team doesn’t do much to damage your resume, even if they are ranked below you. But with a Big Monday matchup against #7 Notre Dame looming, the NC State game became just that. Louisville, like almost every team, has struggled mightily in recent years against Notre Dame. Not only have the Cards lost their 2 matchups with the Irish since joining the ACC, they went just 2-9 against them in their time in the Big East. This made the NC State game very important, a chance to grab an impressive, top 25 win before heading on the road for the daunting challenge of facing Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, things got off to a bad start before the game even started, with Myisha Hines-Allen, who was on the sidelines but not in uniform, a late scratch for the game. Kylee Shook got the start in her place, and early on, it looked like the Cards would overcome the loss of Hines-Allen, as they dominated the 1st quarter, going on separate runs of 9-0 and 8-0, to storm out to a 24-10 lead. But they would go ice-cold in the 2nd frame, scoring just 7 points and seeing their lead shrink all the way to 31-28 by the half. The Wolfpack dominated Louisville on the boards for most of this game, as the absence of Hines-Allen was extremely apparent.
Things did not get much better in the 3rd quarter, as NC State was able to steal the lead less than 2 minutes in, and dominated the quarter again to pull away from the Cardinals. They lead by as much as 9 points in the quarter, and while an Asia Durr three cut it back to a 5 point deficit, NC State was able to get it back to 7, for a 52-45 score after 3 quarters. The game appeared to be trending in a way the Cardinals would not be able to stop, at least until they found a way to grab some rebounds. They started getting more as soon as the 4th quarter began, but looked to be a too little too late. Every time the Cardinals to 5 points, or 3 points, the Wolfpack would respond. Finally, with 3:04 left, NC State took their lead back to 7 points, by a score of 59-52. At this point, something clicked, as the Cardinals went into another gear. They scored 7 straight points, and ended the game on a 9-2 run. This was spearheaded by 4 clutch free throws, and a made three pointer for Asia Durr. At the end of regulation, the teams were tied at 61, and headed to overtime.
The first possession of the extra frame showcased how the improved rebounding sparked the comeback for the Cards. They held the ball for 1:15, on a play that included 4 offensive rebounds by 4 different players, and ended with a Briahanna Jackson three point play. However, they would give up 4 straight points to fall behind, and settle into a back and forth period that came down to the final play. The Cardinals had the ball with 28 seconds left, tied at 70. Asia Durr got a shot off, but was unable to hit, and they turned the ball over with 10 seconds left. After a timeout, NC State’s Miah Spencer drove into the lane and put up a floater that rattled in as the buzzer sounded to win the game, 72-70.
Despite their missing star, the other two members of Louisville’s “big three” gave great performances, with Asia Durr scoring 22 points including 10-12 from the line, and 20 points with 8 rebounds from Mariya Moore who played 43 minutes. Courtnee Walton led the rebounding surge with 12, including 7 off the offensive glass, and Briahanna Jackson added 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. The bench play, however, was one factor that doomed the Cardinals. Despite using 7 players off the bench, compared to just 3 for NC State, the Wolfpack bench actually outscored the Cardinals, 17-9.
Coming off the tough loss, the Cardinals faced a tall order on Monday, heading to South Bend. While #7 Notre Dame may be a step behind last year’s team, they’re still one of the best teams in the country, with their only 3 losses coming to powerhouse programs Tennessee (on the road) and Connecticut (only by 11 points!), and to the aforementioned NC State team.
Once again, the Cardinals would be without Myisha Hines-Allen for this game, as she suited up, and played 1 minute, before being pulled out of the game and not returning. In addition, starting point guard Briahanna Jackson would play just 5 minutes in the game as she dealt with back spasms. For the first few minutes of the game, it seemed like they might be able to overcome this, jumping up 12-9. But the good times would end here for the Cardinals, as they would score just 4 more points in the quarter, and fall behind 19-14.
The rest of the game didn’t get any better for Louisville. They would turn the ball over on their first 5 possessions in the 2nd quarter, sparking a 22-4 run for the Irish. The lead continued to balloon until halftime, where Notre Dame led 50-28. In the 2nd half, Louisville made sure the lead didn’t get much worse, but the damage had been done, and they were never able to create much of a threat. An Asia Durr three pointer with 2 minutes left in the 3rd quarter cut the lead down to 14, and with 5:32 left in the 4th, they’d cut the lead to 12. But after that, they went three minutes without scoring again, and Notre Dame finished the blowout win. The final score was 85-66. Durr led the Cardinals scoring with 31 of the team’s 66 points, and Mariya Moore pitched in 18 more. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to get much more from anyone else, and turnovers ultimately doomed any chance of a close game, as they gave the ball up 16 times, to Notre Dame’s 3.
With just three weeks left in the regular season, the Lady Cards find themselves in a precarious position. They are 20-6, but don’t have a bad loss on their resume, losing to four top 10 teams, and two more in the top 20. But they have no top 10 wins, despite the four chances, the highest win coming against #14 Miami, and their best road coming against #23 South Florida. Both very good wins, but neither convinces you they among the elite in college basketball. As I said earlier in this post, they are in no danger of missing the tournament, but they don’t have many chances left to prove their seeding, unless they make a run in the ACC tournament. The important thing for them now is to not slip up the rest of the regular season, as they must keep a top 4 seed in order to host their first two tournament games. The current selection committee ranking has them at #13, a 4 seed, so they don’t have much room for error.
Louisville now sits at 20-6, and 7-4 in the ACC. The two losses dropped them all the way to 6th seed in the conference, but sit just a game back of returning to 3rd place. This week, they face two unranked team, at 16-7 Virginia Tech on Thursday, who have lost all 7 of those in their last 8 games including 6 in a row, and back home against 8-16 Boston College who have lost 10 in a row themselves.