Last spring, fans of Louisville women's basketball cheered the news that UofL would host one of four NCAA Regionals in 2014. Those games, set for Sunday and next Tuesday at the KFC Yum! Center, will decide which team represents the Louisville region in the Final Four in Nashville April 6 and 8.
No. 5 ranked Louisville is on its way to making the dream of cutting down the nets in the Yum! Center a reality. The Cardinals, the No. 3 seed in the Louisville region, walloped 14th-seeded Idaho 88-42 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday night in Iowa City.
The Cardinals (31-4) face sixth-seeded Iowa (27-8) tonight at 9:35.
In addition to the goal of making it back to Louisville for the regional, the Cardinals are also playing to earn some respect after being seeded No. 3 instead of what many thought was a No. 1 seed resume.
"What we're trying to do right now is prove that we belong," coach Jeff Walz said. "I think a lot of that, with our seed, has to do with respect. I think if we're a program that had been around for 20 years, we may have gotten a better seed. Who knows? Our kids are playing for respect right now. We understand that."
UofL earned the respect of Idaho coach Jon Newlee. "We certainly didn't play our best basketball. Louisville had something to do with that," he said. "I think some of that was our own doing. But they're a great basketball team. I said they should be a number one seed. They didn't do anything out there to disprove that."
UofL led 40-21 at the half. Any hope Idaho had of making a comeback was dashed early in the second half when Louisville scored on its first three possessions and scored 23 points in the first eight minutes to build a 63-30 lead.
"They were pushing the ball in transition really well and we weren't stopping it," Idaho's Alyssa Charlston said.
Louisville shot 71 percent in the second half and had five players finish in double figures. Sara Hammond scored 16, Jude Schimmel 14, Asia Taylor 13, Antonita Slaughter 11 and Shoni Schimmel had 10 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes.
The Cardinals started a little rough, with a pair of offensive fouls and seven straight missed shots before Asia Taylor's bank shot from the low block with 16:05 left broke the scoreless drought.
The good news was that the Cards' defense was so good that they trailed only 4-0 despite all the miscues. After slogging through the first six minutes, Louisville made a 28-10 run, closing the half with a 40-21 lead.
"I thought we fought through the first four or five minutes of the game that we did not play extremely well," Walz said. "But we played hard and finally got things under control, relaxed, and I thought we did some really good things offensively and defensively."
Iowa, a No. 6 seed, beat 11-seed Marist 87-65 Sunday afternoon, advancing to a showdown with Louisville Tuesday night. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, the school's all-time winningest coach, says the Cardinals will pose a tough challenge for her team.
"When you lose four games, and three of them are to the No. 1 team in America (Connecticut), it's crazy to think of them being a No. 3 seed when they've been a top-ranked team all year long," said Bluder. "We know we have a difficult challenge and have a lot of respect for their program, what they did last year, being national runner-up.
"At the same time, it's a new year, we have the opportunity to play at home, and we're going to give them our best shot."
Iowa is 11-5 in NCAA Tournament games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In an odd stat, Iowa will face the reigning NCAA runner-up in the second round for the second straight season on Tuesday when it faces Louisville. The Hawkeyes fell to Notre Dame last year in the second round.
"They're a very talented team, balanced in scoring, and great on the boards," Iowa freshman Ally Disterhoft said. "We're going to have to focus on playing Iowa basketball, sticking to our fundamentals, what we know how to do and come out and execute."
Iowa shot 57.1 percent in its opening-round win. Walz said he doesn't want to see a repeat of that Tuesday night.
"It's a ballclub that presents a lot of problems for us," he said. "We're going to have to defend extremely well. We're going to have to defend the 3-point line well. We definitely don't want to give them wide-open looks."
NEUTRAL OR NOTHING
Walz said even though Louisville is hosting a Regional this season, he'd prefer all future sites be on a neutral court.
"If we're fortunate enough to be able to advance after tomorrow night, we have the opportunity to go back home and play on our home court," he said. "I'm not a fan of being able to play at home to get to a Final Four."
Walz said playing games on home courts is too big of an advantage.
"I think we are 17-1 at home, with our one loss to UConn," he said. "We've had success playing at home. Iowa's played extremely well here. Is it a benefit? Of course, it is. If it wasn't, teams wouldn't bid to host the first and second round.
"We've been on the positive side of that, too. Now we have to make sure we come out here and just play basketball and not worry about where the game's being played."