CRAWFORD | After rout of No. 2 Notre Dame, Louisville women hope crowds keep coming
With the Louisville women's basketball team riding the nation's longest winning streak at 19 games coming off a 33-point win over the nation's No. 2-ranked teams, coaches and players hope crowds in the KFC Yum! Center will pick up.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I’ve heard the observation quite a few times in recent weeks. “You’re covering a lot of women’s basketball this year.”
If you happened to be watching ESPN between 7 and 9 Thursday night, or were one of the 12,614 in the KFC Yum! Center for the University of Louisville's 100-67 demolition of No. 2-ranked Notre Dame, you saw why.
Notre Dame, it must be admitted, wasn’t itself. Depleted to seven scholarship players by injury, the Fighting Irish are wounded. They’re also just one player removed from a team that lost by only nine at No. 1 Connecticut earlier this season. Notre Dame had lost just two ACC games in four-plus seasons before Thursday night, and hadn’t given up 100 in a game in 20 years.
And their veteran coach did not hesitate to describe what she saw at the KFC Yum! Center on Thursday night, after watching Asia Durr score 36 points and Myisha Hines-Allen 31.
“I thought Louisville looked like the best team in the country tonight,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “They came out ready tonight. They gave us a knockout punch and we got knocked out in the first quarter. . . . Asia Durr played like the best player in the country . . . and we’ve played Connecticut, South (Carolina).”
McGraw has some credentials. But don’t expect Louisville coach Jeff Walz to take that bait, even after posting what likely was the most impressive win of the 2017-18 women’s college basketball season to date, and extending the longest winning streak in program history (and longest active streak in the nation) to 19 games.
“No,” Walz said. “I’ll leave that to UConn. That’s one of those, you don’t want to poke a bear. Especially one like that (Louisville will play at UConn on Feb. 12). You know what? I’ve watched them on film, they’re fantastic. I’m really proud of how we’re playing right now. But I’ve said it all along, it’s these young women, and our locker room really is amazing.”
Louisville has depth. Walz, let’s not forget, has six McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster. Three of them start, three come off the bench. He has recruited high school players of the year from four states: Kentucky, Georgia, Florida and Colorado. Even with Notre Dame depleted, Louisville’s bench saw just 31 minutes Thursday. Notre Dame’s 28. Bench scoring was 7-4 in favor of Louisville. In that sense, it was not a typical game for the Cardinals.
Walz said he understood that some on the bench wanted to play more. He wanted to play them more.
“But they watch the game too,” Walz said. “I’ll ask them, jokingly, ‘Do you want me to take Myisha out of the game? She’s 15-for-20? Asia, do you want me to take her out for five or six minutes so you can play?’ They know. Now, when they struggle, we have people who are capable of coming in and doing the job. . . . This was a great team win. They are a great group of young women. They make it fun to come to work. They don’t always like me, but that’s all right.”
This is what it looks like when Louisville’s players are dialed in – and when they have a lively and large crowd of 12,614 behind them.
It was the largest crowd of the season for the Louisville women, but wasn’t even close to one of the ten largest crowds in Louisville women’s history. That’s a bit hard to explain, given that it was one of the most impressive home-court performances a Louisville team has ever turned in. Louisville’s biggest crowd this season is about what South Carolina averages per home game. What Walz liked, however, was that his players delivered in front of that crowd.
“We’ve really done a great job of getting some great crowds in here, and about eight of them have been against UConn, when they’ve won 127 in a row,” Walz said. “And it’s like, ‘Golly.’ We’ve come out and competed, but unfortunately we weren’t able to get one of those wins. That’s why I was so excited about this game, why we worked so hard about promoting it.”
It’s a strange year. Interest is down. The KFC Yum! Center has been filled to 30 percent of capacity for their games. Whatever the case, the bandwagon should pick up plenty of fans now. While Thursday night's crowd wasn't one of the biggest U of L women have ever drawn, it was their biggest since February 7, 2016, when Notre Dame visited.
Walz is working as hard as he’s ever had to work just to promote his own team. He was live on WDRB in the Morning on Wednesday morning, back live in the afternoon and on other stations, too. He saw a couple at dinner Wednesday night and the woman said she wanted to come but her husband is on the fence.
“I said, ‘If you come the tickets are on me,’” Walz said. “And I’m hoping they came tonight. Because if you don’t want to come back after that, I don’t know what to tell you. So I’m hoping we had a lot of first-time people, possibly, that came. That’s some pretty darn good basketball. It’s entertaining. And the kids play so hard. It’s not that we have to score 100, but they play hard. They’re diving on the floor after loose balls, they’re picking each other up. The excitement is there.”
Louisville shot 65.1 percent in this game. It shot 64.1 percent (11 of 17) from three-point range. That doesn’t happen every night. But this is a good shooting team that now ranks seventh nationally in field-goal accuracy at 49.5 percent and sixth in three-point percentage at 40.3 percent.
Maybe more impressive is that the team they demolished on Thursday is ranked 10th nationally in field goal percentage at 48.7 and 15th in scoring at 83.4 points per game, but managed just 67 points against Louisville.
The kind of crowd Louisville had Thursday can make players who don’t generally get those kinds of crowds even sharper. This is a chance for Louisville fans, who have been through a lot, to have some fun.
Durr now leads the nation in three-point shooting at 50 percent on the season (64 of 128).
“We work so hard every day, it’s just good to see it pay off in a game like that,” Durr said. “I’m just thankful right now. We’re all excited. . . . I would have to say that’s the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of. I’ve never played in front of anything like that.”
It’s not like Louisville hasn’t won big games before. It beat No. 1, in what amounted to a road game, in knocking off Baylor in the NCAA Tournament in 2013, and one game later upset Tennessee to reach the Final Four. It has won Elite Eight games. It has been to two NCAA championship games. This game, as Walz noted, gets U of L into its sixth ACC game, not anywhere in the tournament.
But this game also showed what is possible. If Walz can keep this team on its present course, and have some luck with staying healthy, this team has a live shot come tournament time. Nobody expected it to beat Notre Dame by 30, but Louisville’s players fully expected a big game.
“We were coachable, paid attention to the scouting report, focused on playing a full 40 minutes,” Durr said. “Coach Walz just told us before the game to play well and execute and the score would take care of itself.
"I’m going to say this is the best atmosphere we’ve had in my four years here," Hines-Allen said "I just hope they come back.”
That’s a common theme, because Walz repeatedly pointed out on Thursday, he expects more.
“We definitely don’t want this to be the highlight of the season,” he said. “It’s a huge win and we want the kids to enjoy it, to improve to 19-0 and just playing the way we played, I’m really proud of it. . . . But nobody gives you a trophy in mid-January.”
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