LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Much of the Midwest, stretching at least as far as the hundreds of miles separating South Bend, Indiana, from this city on the Ohio River, savored spring-like temperatures Thursday. Snow melted, shovels rested, and it felt a little like an afternoon in April. The kind of afternoon, in fact, likely to precede the game that crowns a champion in women's basketball.
So No. 3 Louisville played a game worthy of the weather. It gave a performance worthy of a champion, a 100-67 victory against No. 2 Notre Dame that pushed the Cardinals to 19-0.
"I thought Louisville looked like the best team in the country today," Muffet McGraw said.
A Hall of Fame coach's assessment is always worth noting. All the more when the team she coaches beat South Carolina and pushed Connecticut to the final minutes earlier this season.
That there wasn't actually a trophy at stake didn't seem to bother any of those on hand.
Not when Louisville shot nearly 80 percent in the first quarter. Not when it doubled Notre Dame's points in the first half. Not when the crowd in an arena full of red rose to its feet in full-throated roar after Asia Durr hit a fadeaway 3-pointer in the corner as the the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter and extend the lead to 39 points.
Not when Louisville made it all look so darn easy.
Louisville is all about drama. It always has been under Jeff Walz. The Cardinals didn't just stun Brittney Griner and defending national champion Baylor in Oklahoma City in 2013 -- they took a big lead, gave it away and reclaimed it. Four years before that, they reached their first national championship game only after trailing Oklahoma by a dozen points at halftime of a semifinal.
They fell behind Tennessee in the first game they ever played in the Yum! Center, the gleaming edifice on the banks of the river downtown that really ought to host a Final Four, then pulled within a single possession in the second half. They came up short. Just as they came up short in a frantic rally on their home court against Maryland in a regional final in 2014. Always drama.
Nor is it all history. The Cardinals got their first win against a top-five team this season only after surviving overtime against Ohio State. Heck, just last week on the same court, they squandered a double-digit lead against undermanned Duke and had to sweat out the final tense minutes.
It is often entertaining. Win or lose, it is rarely easy.
But this was easy. So easy.
"Asia Durr may be the best player in the country. We've played South Carolina and Connecticut, and she is definitely a phenomenal, phenomenal guard. She was just unstoppable."Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw
Notre Dame hit a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game. It hit another the next time down the court. It led 7-5 as the teams traded points in the opening minutes. Then the Fighting Irish stopped making shots. And Louisville didn't. The Cardinals finished the quarter on a 28-9 run. Every starter for the home team hit at least one shot. And not just fast-break layups. Myisha Hines-Allen hit 15-foot jumpers. Sam Fuehring did the same. Arica Carter hit a 3-pointer. Open shot followed open shot, rarely after more than 10 or 12 seconds elapsed off the shot clock.
"Offensively, we have been working on our tempo, we have been working on our passing," Walz said. "I thought offensively we were as good as we've been all year. Not for the fact that we scored 100, but we passed the ball well. We got the ball to people when they were open at the right time. We've had a problem throughout some games of we'll hold it for an extra second, then all of a sudden when you pass it, it's a contested shot. Where tonight, we were getting the ball out of our hands."
McGraw said defensive lapses might have led to a few of the points. Mostly, she acknowledged, Louisville just hit the kind of shots with the kind of consistency rarely seen in the college game. By halftime the lead was 28 points. It grew to as many as 44 in the fourth quarter. This against a Notre Dame team that was 66-2 in conference games since joining the ACC. A team whose five previous losses since the beginning of the 2016-17 season had come by a total of 31 points.
Yet even on a night when everyone scored, when Hines-Allen looked every bit an All-American with 31 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks, it all flowed from Durr. She often makes things look easy on a basketball court. And if teams take on the identity of their best player, this was the night the Cardinals channeled every bit of her.
"I thought Asia Durr may be the best player in the country," McGraw said. "We've played South Carolina and Connecticut, and she is definitely a phenomenal, phenomenal guard. She was just unstoppable. We tried a lot of different defenses, and none of them were really effective."
It was Durr who gave the Cardinals the lead they wouldn't relinquish with an early 3-pointer, her second in the opening two and a half minutes. She scored 11 points before the game was five minutes old. At first the crowd roared when she hit shots. Soon it roared when she took them.
Angel McCoughtry and Shoni Schimmel were special. Their teams did things Durr's teams have not. But with Thursday as an example, the possibilities for Durr seem almost limitless.
"She's much better than Shoni," McGraw said. "McCoughty was tough because she was a great defender -- led the league in steals and a great shot blocker. So I think she was a better all-around player. But Asia Durr is the best offensive player."
"Offensively we were as good as we've been all year. Not for the fact that we scored 100, but we passed the ball well. We got the ball to people when they were open at the right time."Louisville coach Jeff Walz
This was something the season-high crowd of 12,614 could savor instead of sweat out.
"It's the best [crowd] I've ever played in front of," Durr said of the atmosphere. "I was going back and thinking, my freshman year we had a pretty good crowd. But this crowd, unbelievable. I've never played in front of a crowd like that. Man, they were just so loud. They got us hyped. It was so much fun to play in front of them."
While effusive about the atmosphere, Durr, Hines-Allen and Walz did their best to play down the scale and significance of the win. They dropped phrases like "No. 2 team in the country for a reason" and "one game at a time" with almost as much ease as they dropped points on the Irish.
"It's not like it's the first big game that we've won here," Walz said.
Except that, at least as measured by the top five in the AP poll, it was the first on this court. Eight times a top-five team had come to the Yum! Center, and eight times it left with a win.
"We've really done a great job of getting some great crowds in here," Walz said, "And about eight of them have been against UConn when they've won about 127 in a row. And it's like 'Golly.' We came out and competed, but unfortunately we weren't able to get one of those wins."
That they got one of those wins Thursday was not a shock. That they did it with such ease was.
The Fighting Irish know well the danger of a high-water mark coming too early in the season and must hope they didn't reach their own with a late lead against UConn in December. That their pride was wounded Thursday matters less than the real injuries that have left the roster so depleted. That can be any team's fate in the blink of an eye.
The winter respite was a brief one. With temperatures across the area expected to plummet as much as 40 degrees overnight, both teams will wake up Friday to a fresh layer of ice and snow outside. Louisville has no parade to plan, only a week to practice before a trip to Pittsburgh. Nor is Notre Dame's season over, redemption available as soon as Sunday against Boston College.
But it felt like spring Thursday. And Louisville looked like a team eager to play until April.