LEXINGTON, Ky. — The team with the shortest distance to travel to Columbus and the Final Four, Louisville is the first to know it will be a part of the festivities this week in Ohio.
With the stands inside Rupp Arena full of red instead of the more familiar blue of Kentucky, No. 1 seed Louisville ended No. 6 seed Oregon State’s surprising NCAA tournament run with 76-43 win Sunday. The victory sends Louisville to the Final Four for the third time in program history, all under coach Jeff Walz. It is the first trip since 2013 for the Cardinals and the first as a No. 1 seed.
All-American Asia Durr led Louisville with 18 points, one of four Cardinals in double figures. Louisville limited Oregon State to 35 percent shooting from the field and forced 17 turnovers. The Cardinals also shot 48 percent against one of the NCAA’s best field goal defenses.
Louisville previously made the Final Four as a No. 3 seed in 2009 and No. 5 seed in 2013. It advanced to the national championship game each time, twice losing to UConn. The program had just five NCAA tournament wins when Walz arrived a little more than a decade ago.
More to come from Lexington after Louisville finishes cutting down the nets in its arch rival’s building, but here is how it looked at the final buzzer.
Player of the game: As is so often the case for Louisville, it was probably Durr. She’s one of the only players in the country who could score 18 points in a regional final and still have the adjective “quietly” apply to her performance. When the game was close in the second quarter, she hit big shots to secure the lead.
But a very close second place was Arica Carter, even without many points in the box score. One of the team’s most experienced players, the redshirt junior was a defensive force. She was better able to disrupt Oregon State point guards Mikayla Pivec and Aleah Goodman getting into their pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key than either Tennessee or Baylor’s guards — and both of those teams could put pressure on ball handlers. In its upset wins against those teams, Oregon State cut its turnovers significantly in the second half. That wasn’t the case Sunday.
How it was won: With Carter as the tip of the spear, defense allowed Louisville to set the terms of engagement early in the game. But even after forcing nine first-half turnovers and attempting nine more shots than its opponent, the Cardinals held a modest seven-point halftime lead.
Louisville put the game away when it started to turn that defense directly into points in the third quarter. The Cardinals forced five turnovers in the first eight minutes of the third quarter and expanded its lead to more than 20 points with a barrage of transition points. It was just a matter of managing the scoreboard for the final quarter.
Stat of the game: Louisville scored 24 points off turnovers. Oregon State scored none. Granted, forcing turnovers isn’t how Oregon State plays defense, so that side of the comparison is a little unfair. But Louisville’s ability to make Oregon State uncomfortable, keep it out of its pick-and-rolls with Marie Gulich and convert turnovers into points defined the game.
Advantage, Louisville: Walz complained about a late start time for the team’s Sweet 16 game against Stanford, suggesting it wasn’t fair to Louisville fans. But playing the first regional final on Sunday afternoon means his team will have more recovery time than anyone else in the Final Four — nearly 36 more hours than the teams that play Monday night. For a team that loves to play fast and aggressively, that’s no small perk.
Farewell, Marie: It wasn’t the ending that Oregon State’s Marie Gulich deserved, fouling out seconds into the fourth quarter with a line of 14 points and eight rebounds. It was just the second time in 139 career games she fouled out. That’s basketball. No matter how it ended, Gulich put on a show in the NCAA tournament that hopefully opened a lot of eyes in parts of the country that can’t always stay up late for Pac-12 games. The Beavers took on her personality as the season progressed, and after fouling out, there was no towel over her head or seat on the end of the bench — she sat next to the coaches and kept up loud encouragement for her teammates. A season that ended one game from the Final Four is not a bad legacy at all.
What’s next: Louisville advances to the Final Four and will have more rest time than any other team, but it will also be difficult to do much scouting for at least a few hours. The Cardinals will play the winner between fellow No. 1 seed Mississippi State and No. 3 seed UCLA, Sunday’s other regional final (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET). There isn’t much recent history with either opponent. Or ancient history, for that matter. Louisville has never played either team.