RALEIGH, N.C. — A year ago, Louisville's first trip to the NCAA Tournament's round of 16 looked like it would be just a brief stop on the way to the regional finals. Instead the Cardinals blew an 18-point lead and were left wondering how everything went wrong.
Now the Cardinals have returned to the regional semifinals, another step in their bid to develop a consistently elite program. But they're trying to focus solely on the challenge of one game against Baylor on Saturday instead of the big-picture significance of getting back here again.
"We're not putting any extra pressure on trying to get to an Elite Eight or anything like that," second-year coach Jeff Walz said Friday. "We're just trying to make sure we take care of business (Saturday)."
Louisville (31-4) is the No. 3 seed in the Raleigh Regional and has won 10 of 11 games in the past six weeks, with the only loss coming against unbeaten Connecticut in the Big East Tournament championship game.
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Perhaps it's a sign of the program's progress that there isn't that much being made of a return to the round of 16. Instead, the Cardinals know they have the talent to keep going behind seniors Angel McCoughtry (23.3 points per game) and Candyce Bingham (12 points, seven rebounds). They now have the experience, too, after last year's slip-up in this spot.
"Of course we think about it because we were in this position last year and we lost it," Bingham said. "We've been in this position before, so Angel and myself will lead this team and just try not to do the little things we did last year."
Last season, the fourth-seeded Cardinals jumped all over top-seeded North Carolina in the New Orleans Regional and built a 37-19 lead in the first 13½ minutes. But the Tar Heels — a tested group who had been to two straight Final Fours — steadily cut into that margin, pulling to within nine, 46-37, by halftime before pushing ahead by as many as 10 points late in a 78-74 victory.
The mistake in that game, Walz said, was how his team grew tentative with the lead.
"I've told our kids as soon as I got the job here, that once you get to the Sweet 16, it's not necessarily the best basketball team that wins," he said. "It's the team that gets a break here or there. You've got to create your own opportunities."
Louisville cruised past Liberty to open the tournament then beat LSU in Baton Rouge 62-52 in the second round. Baylor (29-5), the region's No. 2 seed, has had a much tougher time getting here.
The Bears survived an overtime scare from No. 15 seed Texas-San Antonio in the first round, then needed a last-second basket from Kelli Griffin to beat South Dakota State 60-58 in the second round.