SAN ANTONIO — Down big early, Kianna Smith and Louisville stayed calm. Then they put together one of the biggest comebacks in women’s NCAA Tournament history.
Smith scored 16 points and the No. 2 seed Cardinals advanced to the Sweet 16 by rallying from 18 down to beat seventh-seeded Northwestern 62-53 on Wednesday night.
“We’re tough. We got down early but we didn’t give up,” said Dana Evans, who added 14 points. “We didn’t get rattled. We stayed together. We trusted the process.”
The comeback was tied for the third-largest ever in the women’s tournament, according to ESPN.
The Cardinals (25-3) got off to a rough start, trailing 25-7 late in the first quarter. It was the second straight game Louisville had a terrible start.
“Back-to-back ballgames now, going to change my pregame speech,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “Those two can’t get much worse.”
Louisville slowly started to chip away on offense thanks to stellar defense. After the opening 10 minutes, the Cardinals held Northwestern to 28 points the rest of the game.
“Great mental effort by everyone on this ballclub,” Walz said.
The deficit was 40-28 midway through the third quarter before the Cardinals scored 17 straight points. The game was tied at 40 heading into the fourth, and Louisville increased its first lead to 45-40 before Lindsay Pulliam — Northwestern’s third-ever 2,000-point scorer — got her only basket of the game.
The Wildcats (16-9) closed to 53-50 on Jordan Hamilton’s 3-pointer with 3:26 left. They had a chance to cut into the deficit, but Veronica Burton missed two free throws 30 seconds later.
Louisville converted nine of 10 free throws down the stretch, including four by freshman Olivia Cochran, who had 13 points and 15 rebounds.
Northwestern blitzed Louisville right from the start, scoring the game’s first seven points and opening a 13-2 lead, leading to a timeout by the Cardinals. It didn’t get much better, with the Wildcats going 4 for 4 from 3-point range on their way to a 25-10 lead after one quarter.
“We didn’t expect to get down that much. They punched us in the face and we responded well,” Evans said. “We started to settle down and make shots.”
The Wildcats cooled off in the second quarter and didn’t score a point for the first 5:22 of the period. A fast-break layup by Courtney Shaw ended the drought and sparked a 7-0 run for Northwestern — the only points the team would score in the period. Louisville closed to 32-20 at the half.
“I feel like they started hitting shots and ours weren’t dropping in the same way,” Burton said. “We had the same fight, we wanted it still, it’s just things started going their way, calls started going their way. It’s just tough, we ran out of gas it seemed like.”
The loss potentially ended the brilliant career of Pulliam. The senior guard was 1 for 11 from the field for just four points.
Hamilton scored 17 points for Northwestern.
“Last year we had a great team, maybe a Final Four team, that never got a chance to prove it,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. “So tonight I think they proved how much fight we have and how tough we are and what a great team to be part of.”