BY MIKE RILEY
Fifth-seed Louisville women took full advantage of its home-court advantage as it ran out to an early lead, bent about as far as you could bend then won going away 74-49 over No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at the Yum! Center.
The Cardinals (25-8) host four-seed Purdue on Tuesday in the second round back at the Yum! Center. The Boilermakers advanced earlier on Sunday with a 77-43 victory over No. 13 seed Liberty.
The Cardinals seemed to have things well in hand when a layup by Monique Reid gave Louisville a 20-3 advantage at the 13:07 mark of the first half as the Blue Raiders had managed to hit 1-of-7 shots.
Middle Tennessee (25-8) then showed a glimpse of how they had won 19 of their last 21 games as it pulled to within 34-27 at the half. Their last basket — a long 3-pointer by Kortni Jones — showed they meant business.
Icelyn Elle and Jones each drilled second-half treys to cut the Cardinal lead to one. Louisville didn’t get their first points of the half until Reid tipped in a shot with 15:41 left.
The Blue Raiders were still in it when Laken Leonard hit a 3-pointer to cut the Louisville advantage to 42-40 with 10:23 left.
Then it was over. Not suddenly — but it was over.
Over the next six minutes, Louisville picked up its defense and started forcing turnovers and went on a 24-4 run.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz first matter of business after the game was to give thanks to “that sixth man.” Announced attendance was 5,977.
“We’d first like to thank our crowd. It was fantastic to have the excitement in the arena that we had,” he said. “Not only from our side, but I thought Middle Tennessee’s crowd was very well represented and they got loud on several occasions. It’s fun for our players and their players to be able to play in environments like this.
Then he praised the Blue Raiders.
“[Middle Tennessee coach] Rick [Insell] does a great job with his team. They play hard. They don’t quit and I think it showed tonight. We had the opportunity tonight to put them away at the start. Unfortunately, we missed some layups, then some free throws, but they continued to fight and before you know it, it’s a one-point game with 16 minutes to go.”
Louisville placed four in double figures led by Shoni Schimmel with 20 points. Reid finished with 15, Jude Schimmel had 11 and Bria Smith had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Jones led Middle Tennessee with 14 points. Elie added with 13 and Ebony Rowe had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Insell didn’t take long to respond when asked, “What happened?”
“Too many turnovers,” he said of his team’s 24 miscues. “We felt like Louisville might give our guards some problems because we’re so small and they have so much length and we’re so young with a freshman and a sophomore. It was good coaching on Jeff’s part. His team reacted well. Hopefully they learn from this and next time we get the opportunity to play somebody like Louisville, we’ll handle the situation. I’m proud of our basketball team. I’m proud of the year. I’m proud of our university.”
In contrast, Louisville only had eight turnovers.
“Our goal was under 15 turnovers and we ended the game at eight,” Schimmel said. “That’s a big step. When we went on our run in the middle of Big East [play], we were turning the ball over at less than 15. So for us to get back to that, it’s a great start for the NCAA Tournament.”
Purdue 77, Liberty 43: The Boilermakers had little problem with the Flames of the Big South Conference as Courtney Moses scored seven consecutive points during a 14-2 run that turned a 10-9 deficit into a 23-12 advantage. Purdue (25-8) led 33-17 at halftime and built the lead to as much as 35 in the second half.
“We were just real anxious to play a basketball game. It has been over two weeks,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said. “We had a game plan put in and I feel like we executed it to a tee. I thought our defense was the key and helped us set the tone early. And for us to be able to have our bench to come in and score 28 points was really good for us.”
Purdue shot 50 percent from the floor including 8-of-16 from 3-point range. Liberty (27-7) shot only 26 percent and went 2-of-11 from behind the arc.
Moses finished with 21 points for Purdue. K.K. Houser added 15 points while Sam Ostarello had 10 points and 17 rebounds.
Devon Brown led Liberty with 21 points.