LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The NCAA tournament offered plenty of inspiration Sunday night for the Gonzaga women.
Before the Zags took the court for their second-round game at Louisville, double-digit seed Creighton had knocked off Iowa. Not long after that an elite-level Baylor had lost a shocker to South Dakota.
By then the Zags were locked in a tight game with the top-seeded Cardinals. For most of the game, they seriously posed the question: Why not us?
But with the backing of a raucous crowd of more than 10,000 at the KFC Yum! Center, the Cardinals slowly took over in the second half to win 68-59 and advance to the Sweet 16.
Louisville (27-4) now heads to Wichita, Kansas, for a showdown Saturday against Tennessee or Belmont.
The Zags (27-7) are done, but they didn’t go down easily against a team expected to contend for a national championship.
“I’m so proud of this team,” guard Kayleigh Truong said after the game. “We were more than willing to fight. And with this crowd, you’ll see a lot of teams back off and slow down and be afraid of all the cheering, but we didn’t.”
However, they seldom found any rhythm against Louisville’s aggressive defense, which affected the Zags the length of the court.
As they did in a first-round win over Albany, the Cardinals pressed consistently. They forced 18 turnovers that turned into 23 points, and held the Bulldogs to 38% shooting from the floor.
At times the Zags were forced to put up a bad shot as the shot clock wound down.
Louisville wasn’t much better at 40.6%, and the Zags the better of things on the boards, 40 to 31.
The difference came on the perimeter, where a GU made just 4 of 20 long-range shots.
“That’s because they’re pressuring you in the backcourt and they pressure you in the full court,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said. “And their defense is good. They’re not overly disciplined in all the areas, but if you get shook or get on your heels, then it is hard to find your teammates.”
“Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have enough in the package to overcome it today,” Fortier said.
Down 36-32 at halftime, the Zags kept the deficit in single digits for most of the third quarter.
But Cashmere, Wash., native Hailey Van Lith was able to find open space, scoring hitting a pair of long-range shots and getting 10 points in the quarter. She finished with a game-high 21.
“I live for this moment, and I love it and I embrace it,” Van Lith said. “My teammates do, too. I feel like we’re a team that if it’s a close game, we have that clutch gene in us, and we can get a bucket.”
By the end of the third, Gonzaga trailed 56-44. Melody Kempton hit two free throws to get the Zags within 8 early in the fourth, but Louisville kept the lead in double digits until Cierra Walker hit two free throws with 15 seconds left to account for the final score.
The game couldn’t have begun worse for the Zags, who looked confused by the Cardinals’ pressure that varied with every possession.
In falling behind 10-0 after 3½ minutes, the Zags gave up four offensive rebounds and missed their first three shots.
By then Fortier had seen enough. She called a timeout to settle her players, but the hole got deeper. It was 14-0 when Kayleigh Truong ended the scoring drought a minute later with a layin through traffic.
The Zags began to break the press, converting three at the other end. By the end of the first quarter, they trailed only 18-14.
The comeback continued into the second quarter, as GU took a 23-22 lead on a pair of Abby O’Connor free throws with 4 minutes left in the half.
Louisville responded with a 14-9 run to lead 36-32 at the break.
Overcoming the poor start, the Zags shot 12 for 27 for the half, though only 2 for 12 from long range. GU had nine turnovers by halftime, mostly against the press.
Louisville seized the momentum midway through the third, forcing three more GU turnovers and getting a pair of three-pointers from Van Lith.
Down 44-36, Fortier called another timeout and Kaylynne Truong responded with a three-pointer that cut the gap to 5.
Kayleigh Truong led the Zags with 14 points and Melody Kempton had 13, along with six rebounds. Gonzaga went 17 for 20 at the foul line.