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RALEIGH, N.C — For the last 10 weeks, Louisville looked like a well-oiled machine.
It answered a season-opening loss with blowout wins, comebacks and game-winning baskets. It showed off the elite defense and an improved offense along the way.
Even Thursday’s game against fourth-ranked NC State seemed like an inevitable win. Up double digits for most of the game, any time NC State made a big basket, second-ranked Louisville answered.
It looked like the same story this season. Louisville was going to close out another game, win its fifth top-20 game and extend its winning streak to 16. A statement win for the Cardinals. But for the first time since the season-opening trip to South Dakota, Louisville looked human.
A 12-point lead with 8:05 left to play evaporated as the Wolfpack rode a 17-0 fourth-quarter run and a raucous home crowd to a 68-60 win over Louisville. It’s the first loss of 2022 for the Cardinals and a tough one at that.
There was a sense of disappointment from a Louisville team that knew it had the Wolfpack right when it wanted them. But don't let the fourth-quarter collapse be mistaken evidence of a team that was playing above its talent and didn't deserve to be in that position.
Louisville deserved it and looked every bit of not only an ACC contender but a national title contender. Thursday just showed they aren't perfect, yet.
"I'm proud of them," coach Jeff Walz said. "Is it the result we wanted, of course not, but I know how we can play. The kids know what we can do and now we just have to get back to work."
For three quarters Louisville looked like the best team in the country.
It defended well, holding the best three-point shooting team in the country to one made shot from deep through three quarters. And for Louisville that starts everything.
But even more than the defense, Louisville was efficient on the offensive end, too. Emily Engstler had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Hailey Van Lith had 14 points.
It turned its defense into offense early and often.
"For three quarters we played patient, we executed, we got the ball reversed, but it was because we guarded first," Walz said.
What was even more impressive was Olivia Cochran’s performance against All-American Elissa Cunane. The sophomore had 19 points in the game. When she’s playing well on both ends of the floor, Louisville is a hard team to stop and the Wolfpack saw that.
On top of individual performances, Louisville forced NC State into 15 turnovers, scored 19 second-chance points and outscored NC State 32-28 in the paint.
Louisville was the best team on the floor for 32 minutes. But to beat a top-5 team on the road you have to be great for 40 minutes.
Walz took blame for getting NC State in a rhythm down 12 by switching to Louisville's 1-3-1 zone, NC State guard Diamond Johnson hit a three and everything started spiraling.
"She got one wide open one and then that got her going, that was a bad call on my part," Walz said. "Then we got out of sorts."
This time it was Louisville on the wrong end of a run, but Walz couldn’t do much. He was strapped with just one timeouts after calling one with six minutes remaining.
He had to trust his team. A team that has, for most of the season, never panicked under pressure. On Thursday, it did. Turnovers killed any offensive rhythm and forced shots ended possessions early.
The key for Louisville is flushing the loss and moving on.
"It's a learning experience, we have to grow from it and keep moving," Walz said.
And history points to Louisville being better for its loss on Thursday. The Cardinals, after losing a close overtime opener to Arizona, responded by beating UT Martin by 32 points days later.
Last season, days after reaching the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history, Louisville lost at home to NC State 74-60. It rattled off wins in five of its next six games heading into the ACC Tournament where it the Wolfpack in the ACC championship game. That season ended the year in the Elite Eight.
So the season isn’t over, by any means. In reality it’s a Jan 20 loss that Louisville will just learn from.
"It's continuing to work," Walz said. "Our effort was great. It's not like our kids didn't play hard. ... It's frustrating and it sucks. I hate to lose, these kids hate to lose, but we aren't going to allow this to turn into three or four consecutive losses because that's now who we are and that's not who this program is."
The more eye-opening thing is that the loss reminded people that Louisville is human. It can lose, but Walz has no doubt the loss won't linger in his player's minds too long.
"We have too high character of kids. They aren't going to do that at all," Walz said.
Now, can it bounce back, again? Louisville is back at the Yum Center at 2 p.m. against Wake Forest.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville women's basketball: Are Cards ready to compete for a title?