If any No. 1 seed came into the women’s NCAA tournament with a question mark attached, it was Louisville.
But there was nothing about Friday’s 69-34 victory over No. 16 seed Robert Morris to worry about. It’s only one game, and against admittedly an overmatched opponent. But Louisville (30-3) did just what it wanted: dominated the game, got Sam Fuehring back strong — she had a double-double and was perfect from the field — and focused on what it needs to do moving forward as the competition gets tougher.
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The Cardinals tied Notre Dame as ACC regular-season champions and beat UConn. They were a Final Four team last year. So why would there be any question about Louisville entering the Big Dance?
Because the Cardinals didn’t look like themselves in the ACC final loss to Notre Dame. There was good reason for that. Shortly before that game, coach Jeff Walz found out that senior guard Arica Carter, who’d scored 16 points in the ACC semifinal victory, was out with a leg injury.
Then during the game, Fuehring suffered a sprained ankle. The senior forward tried to come back, but Walz shut it down, not wanting to worsen the injury and jeopardize her availability for the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board,” Walz said after the ACC final. “We’ve got to get some kids healthy.”
Nearly two weeks later, the Cardinals appear to have done that. Carter didn’t play as a precautionary measure, but she’s supposed to be available for the second round. Fuehring started and appeared to be her usual self — actually she was even better. She went 9-of-9 from the field, including a 3-pointer, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds. It was her seventh double-double of the season. The NCAA tournament record for most makes without a miss is 11-of-11, held by two players, including Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan, who did it last year. But Fuehring notched the best single-game performance by a Louisville player since Jazz Covington went 12-of-12 against Georgetown in 2006.
Fuehring brings toughness and energy, and the Cardinals aren’t the same without them. Getting her back was a great boost. But she was also able to get rest in Friday’s blowout, as did Asia Durr, an espnW first-team All-American. Durr had 19 points, while Dana Evans added 13 and Bionca Dunham 10.
Walz wasn’t able to see Friday’s victory in person; he had to monitor it on television. He was suspended for the game because he used some not-so-nice language while complaining about officiating last year in Louisville’s national semifinal loss to Mississippi State. That was directed to NCAA personnel, and Walz later apologized.
While it was no doubt difficult for Walz to be away from his team, they didn’t give him any reason to be concerned. Assistant Stephanie Norman ran the show in Walz’s place; she has been on the staff all 12 seasons that Walz has been at Louisville.
The Cardinals ended the first quarter on a 16-0 run and never looked back, leading 21-4 after the first 10 minutes.
Robert Morris, the Northeast Conference regular-season and tournament champion, finally started to loosen up late in the second quarter, but there wasn’t much the Colonials could do to counter the Cardinals’ speed and firepower.
Walz will undoubtedly point out a few things the Cardinals need to improve for the next round — he had plenty of time to write them down during the game — but it’s full-steam ahead for Louisville now.