Louisville appreciates its latest No. 1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament a little more than usual.
The Cardinals’ early exit from the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament raised questions about where they would land in the bracket. They ended up with their third No. 1 seed in four trips.
But once the dust settles and the teams take the court, the seeding doesn’t matter. The task at hand is fulfilling those high expectations, and that begins in Friday’s first-round game against No. 16 Albany (23-9).
“It’s an honor. There’s no question about it,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who has turned up the intensity in practice. “You put in an entire season of work, and that’s what you’re given credit for. So really, really impressed by our group and excited for it.
“Now, we have to go out and prove that we were deserving of the 1-seed.”
The loss in the ACC Tournament, and how they lost to Miami — blowing a 15-point lead and allowing the game-winning basket — reminded Louisville (25-4) to its need to stay focused and finish no matter the lead.
A lesson that will help the Cardinals from looking past the Great Danes, even on their home floor.
Louisville has a 12-0 record in first-round games under Walz and has won those openers by an average victory margin of 26.1 points. Continuing that early tourney dominance means putting not letting up the way Louisville has done at times this season.
“It’s just a natural tendency when you get up maybe to relax a little bit,” guard Hailey Van Lith said of the struggles. “I think it’s good we learned our lessons early, now we know going into the tournament that we have done that before.
“All of our practices have been built to put us in situations like that so that we can continue to improve, but I’m very confident in us going into this tournament.”
Albany is coming off its first America East Conference title since 2017 after a title-game upset of top-seeded Maine. Helene Haegerstrand leads the Danes in scoring at 12.1 points per game with 56 3-pointers on 39% shooting.
They feature the nation’s second-best scoring defense, yielding just 48.6 points on 36.3% shooting that ranks 32nd.
The winner advances to Sunday’s second round against the winner between No. 8 Nebraska and No. 9 Gonzaga.
For all the attention Gonzaga’s defense has rightly earned as a top-50 squad allowing opponents just under 37% shooting, its offense bears watching despite the lack of a breakout scorer.
Melody Kempton’s 10.9-point average leads the Bulldogs with Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong next at 10.8 each. Yvonne Ejim (10.0) and Cierra Walker (9.0) round out the starters, who take pride in making sure everyone’s involved.
And there’s no worries about anyone going rogue with more shots in the Big Dance.
“I don’t really think anybody is going to have the urge to really take over the game or try to do something out of their comfort zone or what they’re not used to doing,” Walker said. “I think we’re going to play together, do what we do, do what we do each day in practice, in preparation, and just come together.”
Gonzaga earned its 10th West Coast Conference title with a 71-59 win over No. 15 BYU.
Nebraska guard Jaz Shelley has averaged 19.2 points the past five games, an impressive run that helped the Cornhuskers reach the Big Ten Tournament semifinals before falling to Iowa. The highlight was a career-high 32 points against Illinois two weeks ago.
The 5-foot-9 Australian native has filled the stat sheet in other ways, leading Nebraska with 13.1 points, 5.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1 block per game. The ’Huskers will be counting on all that to get past Gonzaga, with others ready to help.
“She’s brought so much more to our team than just an ability,” coach Amy Williams said. “She’s a great shooter. But the big thing, we knew she’s a great passer. She sees the floor well. She makes everybody on the team better.”
More AP women’s basketball:
https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25