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Stage Set: Louisville ready to defend Central Arkansas

The University of Louisville Women's Basketball team is making their 19th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, eighth under head coach Jeff Walz. While their opponent, the 14-seed Central Arkansas Sugar Bears, take the stage for the first time as a Division I program.

: University of Louisville Sports Information Office/GoCards.com

Louisville, KY - The 3-seed Louisville Cardinals is playing host to 14-seed Central Arkansas in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at the KFC Yum! Center.

The No. 8 ranked Cardinals enter the tournament having won 24 of their previous 27 contests. Louisville suffered a heartbreaking, 80-75, loss in the ACC Tournament Semifinals to the Syracuse Orange. But the Cardinals have learned quite a bit since exiting the ACC Tournament nearly two weeks ago.

"These last two weeks, we've been practicing hard in practice. We've been trying to work on defense." Freshman Asia Durr told the media on Thursday afternoon, "Coach Sam [Williams] and Coach [Jeff] Walz have been trying to stress, for us to play good defense because we know, when we played Syracuse, we didn't play good defense."

ACC Player of the Year, Myisha Hines-Allen added, "You don't win games if you have -- if you play bad defense. So we're just really focused on defense."

While the Cardinals are making their 19th appearance in the Big Dance, the Central Arkansas Sugar Bears are taking the stage for the first time as a Division I program.

"This is an exciting time for us. It's been an amazing journey with this group of young ladies." Central Arkansas' head coach Sandra Rushing told the media, "They're a very special group. They've worked extremely hard this year, and I can't say enough about this team, and I'm really happy, again, for the team, for our seniors. I mean, my coaching staff, our University, and the city of Conway. To be the first team to make it to the NCAAs says a lot about these young ladies and the price that they've paid this year."

The Sugar Bears enter the tournament on a nine game win streak, including grabbing the Southland Conference Tournament Championship.

Last time out, Central Arkansas faced a dangerous Sam Houston State (13-19) in the Southland Conference Tournament finals. The 7-seed Sam Houston State upset the 6-seed Nicholls, 3-seed Stephen F. Austin and the 2-seed Northwestern State to reach the conference tournament finals.

The Bearkats looked poised to once again upset the higher seeded team in the conference finals, clawing back from a 10-point deficit to hold a one-point lead in the final minute of the third period.

But the Sugar Bears tamed the Kats as they regained the lead as the clock wound down in the third period. Central Arkansas maintained a slight lead over Sam Houston throughout the final period. But, the Sugar Bears turned up the heat in the final two minutes and pulled away from the Bearkats for a 69-62 decision.

Brianna Mullins scored a team-high 17 points, shooting 6-of-11 from the field, and connecting on all three of her 3-point attempts. Maggie Proffitt scored 11 and grabbed seven rebounds while Kendara Watts chipped in 10 points.

On the season, Proffitt is leading the Sugar Bears putting up 14.3 points per game and connecting on 90.4% from the charity stripe. Proffitt excels beyond the arc hitting a team-best 66 triples. Mullins is adding 10.5 points per game while leading the Sugar Bears in steals with 41. Raquel Logan leads Central Arkansas on the glass pulling down 6.3 rebounds per game while boasting a team-high 35 blocks.

Central Arkansas went 16-2 in Southland Conference play, earning the Sugar Bears a second-place finish in the regular season.

For the Cardinals, failure to follow a scouting report and struggling on defense led to an earlier exit from the ACC Tournament than expected as Louisville fell to the Syracuse Orange in an 80-75 decision.

Louisville turned the ball over 16 times, and Syracuse converted the 16 turnovers into 21 points.

Louisville head coach Jeff Walz reflected on the loss in his press conference on Thursday, "The Syracuse game, as poor as we played defensively, we were up four with 3:30 left and turned the basketball over the next 2 of 3 possessions. You can't do that."

Hines-Allen recorded her 11th double-double of the season with 27 points (9-of-13 from the field) and 12 rebounds. Durr racked up 23 points for the Cardinals to go along with two steals. Briahanna Jackson rounded out the top scorers chipping in 18 points and nine rebounds.

ACC Player of the Year, Hines-Allen, is pacing the Cardinals into the postseason posting 17.5 points per game and 8.4 rebounds, while connecting on an impressive 54% from the floor. The All-American candidate has scored 20 points on 11 occasions. Mariya Moore falls at second in scoring adding 14 points per game and boasting a team-high 142 assists on the season. Durr and Jackson are chipping in 11 points apiece. Jackson boasts a team-best 65 steals. Despite only averaging 5.9 points per game, Cortnee Walton is dominating the glass for the Cardinals pulling down a team-high 130 offensive rebounds.

Despite being seeded significantly higher than the Central Arkansas Sugar Bears, the Cardinals are not overlooking their opponent.

"They have a lot of good guards." Myisha Hines-Allen told the media on Thursday, "They're a guard-oriented team. They run fast, and they're a really scrappy team. They're post players are a little undersized, so we have to work it inside out."

Mullins spoke of the match-up from the Sugar Bear's perspective, "We've been watching film. They're athletic. They're fast. But like I said, regardless of who we're going to play against, we're going to come out and we're going to play our best."

The 3-seed Louisville Cardinals and the 14-seed Central Arkansas Sugar Bears tip off Friday at 2:30 PM. The contest will air on ESPN2.