For their first time on the NCAA Women’s Tournament stage, the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears stole the spotlight from a marquee team for a few fleeting moments.
Even after the eighth-ranked Louisville Cardinals shoved them into the shadows like No. 3 seeds have done to No. 14 seeds 89 times in the history of the tournament, the UCA women earned applause from their opposing coach after a banner 28-4 season.
"I was very, very impressed with their ballclub, with how hard they fought, how scrappy they were," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz after the Cardinals (26-7) used a 29-9 run in the second quarter to take command in an 87-60 victory at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. "A team that just never quits, and that’s one thing we tried to explain to our kids before the game started."
The Sugar Bears came out aggressively and spread the floor against the Cards, whose starters were 6-2, 6-3, 6-3. Forcing the taller players to the perimeter and exposing gaps in the Louisville offense, the Sugar Bears hit four of their first 3-point attempts in leading by six at one point and by 25-22 at the end of the first quarter. They shot 52 percent the first quarter on the way to scoring the most first-quarter points against Louisville all season.
The Cardinals adjusted their defense the second quarter and began running their offense through 6-2 Myisha Hines-Kelly, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year who scored 25 points in 23 minutes. She scored 19 points the first half and was 12 of 17 from the field for the game.
Taylor Baudoin, UCA’s 5-11 post, picked up her third foul at 9:11 of the second quarter. The Cardinals, forcing UCA’s offense into disarray with more pressure, began scoring almost at will.
They powered to a 51-34 lead at the half and opened the second half with four straight points to take complete command. "They came out, I thought, for a first period and punched us in the nose," said Walz, whose team is making its sixth straight NCAA appearance.
"I was just really impressed with them. I told coach (Sandra Rushing) as we shook hands there at the end, that I was just really impressed with her ballclub, what she does with them.I think they’re well-coached. And I told all the kids as we went by just how impressed we were with how hard they play. You know, it was a very, very good basketball team, and there is a reason they won their league, and you can see that."
After the hot opening flurry, UCA was held to 32.9 (23 of 70) percent shooting for the game.
Louisville, firing many shots are point-blank range inside the UCA defense, shot 54.8 percent (34 of 62).
The Cardinals had a 50-18 advantage on points in the paint, 33-18 on bench points and 12-0 on fast-break points.
Baudoin had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Senior Kendara Watts had 12 points, and rebounds and three assists for the Sugar Bears.
Jameka Watkins, another senior, had six assists and four rebounds, Aside from a couple of long-range flurries, Proffitt was held in check (4 of 17 from the field on the way to 11 points).
Sandy Jackson came off the bench with a spark for nine points and seven rebounds.
The Sugar Bears scored their most points in a Division I postseason tournament game after putting up 51 against Oklahoma State in the 2012 WNIT and 54 against UAB in the 2011 WBI.
"This was our first time on the big stage, but we sure would like to get back here," Rushing said.
"This is great for our program that we can go back and we’ll break down the film and compare. We know where we want to be at Central Arkansas, and it takes time.
"But these players have laid the foundation. They’ve been here. We’ve got to continue to work. I think UCA is a great place and a great school. If we can get people on campus, we can sell it. These young ladies right here are just so wonderful to be around. They bleed purple."
(UCA Sports Information contributed to this report)