LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — With every possession looming large, Kianna Smith and Hailey Van Lith calmly seized the chances that No. 3 Louisville needed them to against Syracuse.
Smith and Van Lith each scored 20 points, with Van Lith making a couple of clutch baskets to spark a critical 9-0 run in the final minutes and help the Cardinals escape Syracuse 84-71 on Thursday night.
The determined Orange rallied to tie the game at 62 early in the fourth quarter before Smith and Van Lith delivered consecutive 3s to give the Cardinals (14-1, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) a 68-64 edge. Van Lith made another basket before Olivia Cochran followed with a three-point play to make it 73-66 with 3 minutes remaining. Van Lith added a jumper and Emily Engstler two free throws for a 77-66 cushion, Mykasa Robinson added a layup and Engstler closed with the game’s final five points to cap Louisville’s 14th consecutive victory.
It just took the Cardinals’ veterans to set the example.
“Personally, it’s confidence,” said Smith, who opened the fourth for Louisville with two 3s as the Cardinals made all four from long range in the quarter. “We put in a lot of work, so those shots are shots we practice every day. Shooting them is just normal, it’s not high-pressure situations.”
Christianna Carr had 19 points and Chrislyn Carr 17 for Syracuse (8-8, 1-5), which shot 48% but dropped its fourth in a row.
Smith made 4 of 7 3-pointers and 8 of 12 shots overall, while Van Lith was 9 of 16 and 2 of 6 from deep. Louisville finished 34 of 66 from the field, with every basket needed to put away Syracuse. Engstler had 15 points and eight rebounds against her former team, while Cochran had 13 points and seven boards.
Louisville’s offensive success was somewhat surprising coming off a COVID pause that postponed Sunday’s game at Miami and limited practice for players and staff, including head coach Jeff Walz. The Cardinals’ defensive struggles at times were just as startling, though the Orange entered as one of the ACC’s most efficient squads on both ends and showed that throughout a close contest.
“They’re a unique team because they do a lot of five-out, one-on-one action, and we’re a very scout-oriented team that likes to be prepared,” Van Lith said. “On top of Covid and girls coming back at different times and not being set because of the offense they run, it was a tough scout for us.”
Syracuse struggled down the stretch, making just 4 of its final 11 shots after tying the game. The Orange also committed 20 turnovers leading to 24 Louisville points, including a couple of giveaways the Cardinals turned into five points during their run.
“We were right there, down three with a few minutes to go, they just closed a little bit better than us,” Syracuse acting head coach Vonn Read said. “We shot the ball really well and gave ourselves a chance. … They fought for 40 minutes. That’s all I could ask from them.”
Engstler played three years with Syracuse and was last season’s ACC Sixth Player of the Year before transferring during the offseason. The senior forward turned in another all-around effort by making 4 of 8 from the field, all six free throws and five assists. She finished strong despite three fouls, simultaneously being whistled for a personal foul and technical late in the second quarter. Christianna Carr made four free throws that got Syracuse within 40-35 at the break.
BY THE NUMBERS
The teams finished even with 31 boards each. … The Orange made 8 of 17 from behind the arc, while the Cardinals were 7 of 17. … Louisville outscored Syracuse 24-11 in the paint, 14-4 off the bench and 6-0 in a game with few fast-break opportunities.
Syracuse: The Orange used just six players but overcame several deficits to seize momentum and the lead after halftime to keep the Cardinals on their heels. Failing to defend Smith and Van Lith from the perimeter ultimately hurt late, along with scoring just five points in the final three minutes.
Louisville: Every time the Cardinals seemed poised to break the game open, sloppy play and missed layups opened the door for the Orange to rally and even lead. Smith and Van Lith bailed them out with clutch 3s, which snapped teammates out of a funk to close strong.