CRAWFORD | Louisville women all smiles heading into NCAA Sweet 1 - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville women all smiles heading into NCAA Sweet 16 matchup with Stanford

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Louisville's players celebrate with ESPN's Debbie Antonelli after she beats Jeff Walz in a game of P-I-G. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Louisville's players celebrate with ESPN's Debbie Antonelli after she beats Jeff Walz in a game of P-I-G. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
Louisville players watch as Jeff Walz attempts an eyes-closed free throw during Thursday's NCAA shootaround in Rupp Arena. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Louisville players watch as Jeff Walz attempts an eyes-closed free throw during Thursday's NCAA shootaround in Rupp Arena. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For the Louisville women’s basketball program, it’s a new kind of pressure. You don’t hear players or coaches talk about it, but it’s there.

The program has been an upstart. The last time they went to the NCAA title game, they were the self-described “party crashers,” parlaying the biggest upset in the history of the women’s game to a Final Four run.

This time around is different. This time, the program is a brand name. This time if the Cardinals meet Baylor in this weekend's NCAA Lexington Regional, they will be the No. 1 seed playing near home.

In some ways, this is the most pressure-packed round for a No. 1 seed. The Sweet Sixteen presents first-rate opponents and can jangle even the steeliest nerves.

But if the Cardinals were feeling any of that, it didn’t show on Thursday afternoon in Rupp Arena, while they breezed through a shootaround after a real practice during the morning in Louisville.

At the end of it, Walz and ESPN’s Debbie Antonelli agreed to a game of P-I-G, with Louisville players becoming Antonelli’s cheering section. She won, and the squad erupted, embracing here while Walz laughed.

He took a seat on the bench and talked about his college days, when the coach would lecture his players to take game shots in warm-ups, and he would plop down on the bench and launch a shot from his seat. He repeated it on Wednesday, missing his first try, but making his second.

“I played here in high school,” Walz said, on his way out of Rupp Arena. “Fort Thomas Highlands. We came to the Sweet 16 and played Richie Farmer and Clay County and those guys. I sat on the bench (he pointed over), right where I was sitting minute ago.”

In fact, when asked about playing in this setting as the No. 1 seed, Walz shrugged. He doesn’t see his team much differently from when he had the party crashers. You have to win one more game, regardless of what number is by your name. With a brand-name Stanford program and a Hall of Fame coach awaiting the Cards in Friday night's second game in Lexington, he knows the challenge is with the opponent, not the seed.

“We don't even talk about it,” he said. “The 1 seed is just a reward of what you've done during your regular season, your conference tournament. You know, once the games start up, I've said it all postseason, it's all about momentum. It's not about seeding. You have to capitalize with every opportunity. You have to gain momentum, you have to capitalize on it, and that's something that we were able to do in the first two rounds. We came out in that Marquette game, a team that I've got a ton of respect for, they take Notre Dame to overtime, Tennessee to overtime. So it's a very talented Marquette basketball team that's very well-coached, and we got a little momentum right out of the gate. And before you know it, we're up 20. Well, that's what you have to do. You've got to make sure you capitalize on it.”

It’s been a season of momentum with only a couple of interruptions for the Cardinals. When the team is dialed in, it can be something special. It obliterated a Notre Dame team that has lost only one game since – to Louisville. It also fell way behind at Connecticut before closing late in an 11-point loss.

“When you play with these players, you don’t feel the pressure,” point guard Arica Carter said. “Everybody makes plays. . . . We focus a lot on the process, on just the next game.”

Walz is noted for his biting sarcasm. I wondered if he eased up in March, when tension runs high and sometimes a break is needed.

“If anything he’s more serious,” Carter said. “Because every game means more. . . . I think our practices have gotten a lot more focused. We know what every game means.”

But on Thursday in Rupp Arena, the players were all smiles. Myisha Hines-Allen, Most Outstanding Player of the ACC Tournament, was advising her on what shots to take. “He makes free throws,” she said.

She capitalized. Walz just laughed. The players took turns trying to make half-court shots, and Walz put his up. He made one a few days earlier, and let the players hear about it.

“You know, I just enjoy it. It's fun,” he said. “I really think that part of the thing that makes our program as special as it is and our players as special as they are is the relationships that we form. You know, it's not you just come to practice, you work at it and then you leave. It's about spending time with them off the floor, after practice, and that's what we do.”

He’s hoping they can do it for a while longer.

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