GREENSBORO, N.C. — Fourth-ranked Louisville hasn't had an easy time in either of its two Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament games. Yet here the Cardinals are, moving on to their first championship game.
Sam Fuehring scored 15 points to help Louisville hold off No. 23 North Carolina State 64-59 in Saturday's semifinals, earning a trip to Sunday's final after three previous semifinal losses.
It hasn't been a conventional path for a team that went 15-1 through ACC regular-season play, most notably with newly crowned league player of the year Asia Durr having her second quiet game in as many days.
Not that coach Jeff Walz cares.
"At this time of the year, you've just got to figure out a way to win," Walz said. "Nobody cares. You know, you can have a great game and lose, and you still lose. There is no consolation prize. So if we figure out a way to win a basketball game, that is all that matters."
The top-seeded Cardinals (31-2) led by eight points midway through the fourth quarter, but needed some key baskets to stay in control.
Fuehring had one inside on a feed from Jazmine Jones with 1:57 left. Then Myisha Hines-Allen had a critical stickback with 32.6 seconds left as Louisville protected a 59-55 lead.
"That's just what me and Sam do," said Hines-Allen, who had 12 points and seven rebounds. "We try to go to the ... offensive boards and try to get those putbacks. That's something we've been doing all year and we just came up big this game to push that lead out."
Louisville shot 52 percent and had four players in double figures with Fuehring, Jones (13 points) and Arica Carter (11) each exceeding their season scoring averages by a couple of baskets.
"We want to take away your best options and make some other people step up," Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said, "Louisville's a very talented team and they had a couple of people step up that maybe normally don't score quite as much."
Chelsea Nelson had 20 points and nine rebounds for the fifth-seeded Wolfpack (24-8), who shot 39 percent but had a 34-24 rebounding advantage.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack advanced by beating North Carolina in the second round and No. 18 Duke in Friday's quarterfinals to earn another shot at a team that had N.C. State down 26-1 at home on New Year's Eve. A win would've helped the Wolfpack's cause for getting the chance to host NCAA Tournament opening-weekend games, but N.C. State couldn't quite overtake the Cardinals despite a gritty effort.
"That's out of our hands," Moore said of his team's NCAA destination. "I think this team's proven that they are definitely worthy of a good seeding. ... You know, obviously we would love to host. But we don't control that."
Louisville: While Walz shrugged off the question, the Cardinals have had two areas of concern. First there's the slow starts — they trailed by nine after the first quarter in the quarterfinals against Virginia Tech then by eight early in the second against N.C. State. Second, Durr came in averaging 19.2 points but has 20 points in two games. She followed her 3-for-19 shooting performance against the Hokies by going just 3 of 8 against the Wolfpack in 37 minutes — though she did knock down two key free throws with 15.7 seconds left to help Louisville hold on.
"She puts the time in, it's not an accident," Walz said of Durr's season success. "It's more so of an accident the past two games. ... She just didn't get a lot of looks, but what she did do was demand a lot of attention, and others were able to get easy baskets. And that's what great players do."
N.C. State: The NCAA Tournament is next for the Wolfpack.
Louisville: The Cardinals advanced to Sunday's championship game to face the winner of the second semifinal between No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 11 Florida State.