WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Louisville spent most of Sunday looking little like the nation’s top-ranked team, from struggling to make shots to keeping a determined opponent off the boards.
Of course, it helps to have Dana Evans to offset all that – and allow the Cardinals to barely avoid a huge upset in their first week at No. 1.
The reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year hit a driving shot for the go-ahead three-point play with 8.0 seconds left to help Louisville hang on to beat Wake Forest 65-63 on Sunday. It was part of a huge day for the preseason Associated Press All-American in a game in which little came easily for the Cardinals and they had to survive a final-play shot from the Demon Deacons to hold on.
“We needed her down the stretch there,” coach Jeff Walz said of Evans.
And did they ever.
Evans finished with 25 points, the last coming when she banked in a tough drive over Gina Conti and hit the ensuing free throw. That came after she sparked the 14-2 run that helped Louisville (14-0, 7-0 ACC) erase a nine-point deficit with about seven minutes left, scoring twice and assisting on another basket before ending the run with a 3-pointer for a 60-57 lead with 3:27 left.
“I’m the leader of this team,” Evans said of her winning drive, “so they were counting on me to make something happen – make something out of nothing, so that’s what I did.”
And yet, Wake Forest (7-6, 4-5) had a final chance for its first-ever win against a top-ranked opponent. Ivana Raca popped open on the wing for a 3-pointer, but the shot bounced off the iron at the horn.
Conti scored 13 points while Raca had 12 to lead the Demon Deacons, who erased an early nine-point deficit by going relentlessly to the boards. They took their biggest lead at 55-46 on Alexandria Scruggs’ stickback before the Cardinals regrouped.
“This group’s got to mentally be able to handle what happened today,” Wake Forest coach Jen Hoover said. “And it’s gonna hurt. … We’re not into moral victories. I don’t care if we are little ol’ Wake Forest. That doesn’t mean anything to us. We wanted that win.”
Louisville: The Cardinals reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 to start the week for the first time. But Walz said he didn’t expect anything would change, noting that while the roster has talent, it isn’t a team that will “just overwhelm you.” His team proved him right Sunday by having to grind out a tough win against a team coming off a 29-point home loss to Georgia Tech.
“It was not a very good effort on our part, just mentally throughout the whole game,” Walz said. “It’s pretty amazing that we even won the basketball game. We really probably did not deserve to.”
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons had lost all 10 games against No. 1-ranked opponents and they were also looking for their first-ever win against a top-5 opponent after losing their first 61 tries. The Demon Deacons came unexpectedly close to changing all of that with a fearless effort that fell short.
Wake Forest entered shooting 76.1% from the foul line but made just 12 of 24 free throws.
“You look at that and that makes me sick to see you had No. 1 in the country beat and missed 12 free throws, shot 50%,” Hoover said. “You just can’t do that.”
Wake Forest finished with a 43-32 rebounding advantage, including 24-13 on the offensive glass. Louisville freshman Hailey Van Lith finished with just five points, though that included a contested layup with 46.6 seconds left for a 62-61 lead. Raca scored inside with 16.7 seconds left to put Wake Forest back up one and set up Evans’ winning score. Louisville shot 34.9% through three quarters before shooting 53% in the final period. Wake Forest shot 39.7% but made 1 of 11 3-pointers.
Louisville: The Cardinals return home to host Miami on Tuesday in the first of three straight home games.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons host Florida State on Thursday.