No. 2 Louisville looks to make history if the Cardinals can continue their recent mastery of top-ranked Notre Dame.
The unbeaten Cardinals can achieve their first-ever No. 1 ranking in women’s basketball by running the table this week against the defending champion Irish and Georgia Tech. It would be the next step toward their bigger goal: winning the national championship.
It’s the first time Louisville has played in No. 1 vs No. 2 matchup.
“We have a shot to be No. 1 in the country and it’s never been done,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said on Wednesday. “But that’s not my ultimate goal in January. Our ultimate goal is to hopefully be able to win a national championship in April and finish being No. 1. It’s going to be a battle.”
The Cardinals are just 1-10 all-time when playing the nation’s top-ranked team. That lone victory was an upset against top-seeded Baylor in the 2013 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. The record doesn’t bode well for Louisville (14-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) entering Thursday night’s showdown at Notre Dame, which has played in seven 1-2 matchups and is just a month removed from its latest one — an 89-71 loss to UConn.
The Irish (14-1, 2-0) have won seven in a row to get back to where they started the season. They intend on staying there and have a score to settle with Louisville.
“If it gives them motivation, I’m all for it,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “This is a game within the conference and that’s what makes it most important. If they come in with a chip on their shoulders, I’m fine with that.”
If, and that’s a big if, Louisville can ascend to the top spot the Cardinals would have to clear another hurdle on Jan. 31 — when No. 3 UConn visits the Bluegrass State — to hang onto it.
Walz understands the magnitude of these marquee matchups and what a No. 1 ranking would mean for his program, but stresses the main goal is to be the last team standing in April. These upcoming games against opponents that are a combined 31-7 against Louisville could go a long way in helping the Cardinals capture their first national title in women’s basketball.
But Louisville can’t be a prisoner of the moment.
The Cardinals throttled injury-depleted Notre Dame 100-67 at home last year and ended the Irish’s four-year grip on the ACC championship with a 74-72 win in the tournament final. They’ll probably have to go through Notre Dame in the tournament.
There is really no love lost between the programs.
After Louisville’s victory in the ACC Tournament, there was an intense exchange between Walz and Irish coach Muffet McGraw during the postgame handshake. Both coaches have chosen to leave that moment behind, but it was indicative of how fierce the rivalry has become.
In the end, the Cardinals’ NCAA title quest fell short once again — this time in a 73-63 overtime loss to Mississippi State in the Final Four. Walz was not happy about how things ended and the NCAA ultimately suspended him for one game of this year’s tournament for comments made toward committee members and staff during that game.
Notre Dame had the last word, hoisting its second championship trophy.
“It just lit a fire under us to come back and get to that spot where we’re playing in the national championship,” said Louisville senior guard Arica Carter, who said she watched some of the title game. “The whole time I was thinking it should have been us.”
The Cardinals have a lot of basketball to play to see if their dream comes true.
For now, it’s Louisville-Notre Dame once again in a marquee matchup.
And while Thursday’s showdown won’t define either team’s season, both want to make a statement that the road to the title runs through them.
AP Freelance Writer John Fineran in South Bend, Indiana, contributed to this report.