Top seed Louisville, No. 9 Gonzaga battle for Sweet 16 spot

Louisville moved past its painful collapse in the conference tournament to dominate its NCAA Tournament opener, and aim to keep that going against a ninth-seeded Gonzaga squad determined to pull off an upset.

Top-seeded Louisville (26-4) hosts the Bulldogs in Sunday’s second-round game in seeking its 11th Sweet 16 appearance in 15 years under coach Jeff Walz and fifth in six seasons (the 2020 tournament was cancelled because of COVID-19).

As common as that has become for this successful program, nobody’s taking things for granted — Gonzaga (27-6) is a challenging team that has won six in a row. But Cardinals like senior Emily Engstler yearn to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time.

“Just to even go past the second round for me is something special, especially to do it with this team,” said Engstler, who transferred from Syracuse last summer. “I’m just really excited to be playing with them and Gonzaga is a really good team. I think we just have to lock in the next few days and we’ll be alright.”

The Cardinals were engaged Friday in the 83-51 shellacking of No. 16 Albany. They nearly matched the Great Danes’ scoring defensive average (49 points) by halftime alone with a 48-20 cushion. Louisville kept its foot on the gas in the final 20 minutes, outscoring Albany 35-31 and ultimately forcing 26 turnovers for 37 points.

Offensive depth helped as Hailey Van Lith scored 17 of her 20 points before halftime and Kianna Smith had 15 of her 17 points by then, too. Engstler had 17 to break 1,000 career points while contributing seven rebounds and seven steals.

Then again, Louisville had a point to make after blowing a 15-point fourth-quarter lead to Miami in a 61-59 loss at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Gonzaga is similar to Miami in that it is balanced and aggressive on defense, so Louisville is studying film to make sure everyone is accounted for.

“They have got three or four kids that can really shoot the 3,” Walz said Saturday. “They have got great post play. … they are 27-6 for a reason and playing in the second round. Once you get to this point, everybody playing has probably been in the Top 25 at one point in time during the year, they’ve received votes.”

The Bulldogs shed their own bad postseason memory — last spring’s first-round ouster by Belmont — by beating eight-seed Nebraska 68-55. The Bulldogs held the Cornhuskers to just 32% shooting and outrebounded them 40-33.

They also spread the ball around, with Kayleigh Truong scoring 20 points, Melody Kempton (eight rebounds) and Yvonne Ejim adding 14 each, and Anamaria Virojoghe 10. Cierra Walker is 11th nationally in 3-point percentage (42.6) and tied for 61st nationally with 69.

“I feel like a lot of smiles … just knowing we’re one step closer to our goal,” Ejim said.

For the Zags to reach their fifth Sweet 16 and first since 2015 means beating their first No. 1 seed on the second attempt — and on Louisville’ home floor.

“I know the crowd’s not going to be pulling for us tomorrow,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. “But that’s more of what we’re used to, we’re used to people being here. We’re used to it being loud, even at Gonzaga, it’s loud for us, it’s so loud. And that’s an environment we enjoy playing in front of and we’re accustomed to.”

Sunday’s meeting is the third time the schools have ever met and first in the NCAA Tournament since Gonzaga won 76-69 in the 2011 Sweet 16 in Spokane during its run to the Elite Eight. Louisville beat the Zags 55-42 in 2013 at the Hardwood Tournament of Hope at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

It’s Louisville’s second matchup this season against a school from Washington, Van Lith’s home state; the Cardinals beat Washington 61-53 in November. She’s excited to face another home-state team in the Zags.

“They’re a great team, so it’s going to be a great game, fun to be a part of,” said Van Lith, who is from Wenatchee, Washington. “We’re going to prepare for it, and yeah, we’ll take care of business.”

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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