LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For a few seconds, Louisville's two best players were just two more fans in an arena already full of people wearing Cardinals colors. Asia Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen never looked more excited Sunday than when they watched Jazmine Jones jump between two Oregon State players attempting to complete a pass, tip the ball away, collect it in the open court and race the other way for a layup in the third quarter.
Hines-Allen jumped in the air and implored the crowd to come to its feet, which failed only because most of them were already standing. A few feet away, Durr was no less exuberant.
And for those seconds, equally a spectator.
With good reason. When Louisville gets going on defense, it's hard not to sit back and admire the artistry.
No. 1 seed Louisville is the first team to qualify for the Final Four after a comprehensive 76-43 win against No. 6 seed Oregon Station, ending the run of a Pac-12 team that proved better than its seed in eliminating Baylor and Tennessee. Louisville has two players who score about as adeptly as any two players in the sport at the moment -- in Durr's case, with as much apparent ease as just about anyone who has ever played college basketball. Those two led the Cardinals in scoring in Sunday's game, too, combining for just nine fewer points than Oregon State in total (Durr scored 18, Hines-Allen 16).
But the star of the show was the other part of Louisville's version of a big three: Durr, Hines-Allen and a defense that is rarely the same from game to game but is almost always effective.
"That's what makes it fun -- frustrating the other team," Louisville's Arica Carter said. "It's not always about offense, Defensively, you can make a huge difference. That's what we did tonight."
Louisville limited Oregon State to 35 percent shooting after the Beavers shot 46 percent at Tennessee in the second round and 45 percent against Baylor in the Sweet 16 (and ranked eighth in the nation in field goal offense for the season entering Sunday).
The Cardinals forced 17 turnovers, Oregon State's most in the tournament, and scored 24 points off those miscues.
The numbers are impressive. So was the sensation in person. Louisville rarely let Oregon State get comfortable. The Cardinals didn't press but applied constant pressure. They didn't let Oregon State's guards, specifically point guard Mikayla Pivec, get to the 3-point line to initiate the offense. They didn't let Marie Gülich, such a force throughout the tournament, catch the ball on the block or the elbow but instead several steps beyond that real estate.
"The plan was to pressure the ball and try to fight over screens so that our posts wouldn't have to help us as much," Carter said. "I feel like we executed that plan. Even when [Gülich] got it, we were all there doubling or doing something to make sure she passed it out because she is a great player."
This is what Louisville does -- find a style of defense that will work. The team's Sweet 16 game ended after midnight Friday at Rupp Arena. The players went to sleep, the coaches went to work watching video. By Saturday, they talked the players through Oregon State's personnel and worked through some of its sets in practice. Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said after Sunday's game that the defense most reminded him of USC and its ball pressure, but the game Louisville coaches used most -- and showed the team portions of Sunday morning -- was Oregon State's loss at UCLA when the Bruins forced 21 turnovers.
"They're phenomenal with ball screens," Louisville assistant Sam Purcell said. "So if now we can make that screen above the 3-point line, the roll action is not as effective as when they set it at the free throw line and it's a quicker pocket to hit the easy pull-up, the roller or make the drag pass in the open window. It was everything of our game plan to try and disrupt that."
Oregon State's first possession ended with a turnover by Gülich after Durr dropped down to double-team her. Its next possession ended with a turnover on a post entry pass that came from a few feet deeper on the court than the Beavers would have preferred. It didn't get much better for the Beavers, who found some open looks in the second quarter to stay close but then faded.
While Durr and Hines-Allen are the subject of most of the words spoken and written about the Cardinals, and deservedly so, the rest of the roster is a group literally handpicked to execute this ad-lib defense -- or maybe mad-lib defense might be a better description. Beyond obvious targets -- a program-changer like Durr -- Louisville doesn't recruit for a system that it runs year after year. It recruits for pieces to use against what other teams want to do.
Louisville looked at someone like Sam Fuehring, an agile 6-foot-3 junior forward, and saw a perfect disruptive presence, able to play in the post and still defend in space on the perimeter. Oregon State's Rueck gently lamented that the game was allowed to be more physical than the previous rounds, but Fuehring took what the officials were willing to permit and didn't give an inch to Gülich in return.
"I get frustrated when Sam is guarding me in practice," Hines-Allen said. "I can totally understand the frustration from her. Sam is a great player, and she knows how to get in players' heads. And that is one thing that is so unique about her is that she plays with so much emotion and can get in another player's head."
So, too, did Carter, who got tangled up with Pivec on the same play late in the third quarter on which Fuehring was assessed an unsportsmanlike foul while tangled up with Gülich. All game long she pressured Oregon State's guards. She forced Pivec to her knees while pressuring near midcourt on the first possession of the second half. She forced a five-second call on Katie McWilliams at the 3-point line later in the quarter. She didn't give them a moment to relax.
A redshirt junior who bore the brunt of coach Jeff Walz's considerable wrath early in her career, to the point that some wondered if she might transfer, Carter is now second only to Durr in minutes per game.
"She's not just a player -- she's a coach," Hines-Allen said. "She actually coaches us up. To see her get after it on the defensive end is amazing."
And still the best defender on the team might be Jones, whose steal and layup, much to the delight of Hines-Allen and Durr, capped the 28-point third-quarter surge that put the game out of reach.
As the seeding suggests, this is Louisville's most complete team, the team best equipped to win a championship even if the previous two Final Four teams reached the final. Its ability to play any style of game defensively, at tempo or grinding it out, can be an overlooked part of that.
"As the season kept going on, we started lacking [defensively] and playing more lazy," Carter said. "Now we picked it back up, and we've been playing great defense against teams. We saw how it affected us -- we could have won by more or done other things in games. We realized that in order to get to a Final Four, get to a national championship, defense is a big key."
The Cardinals can rely on Durr, who even in a seemingly quiet performance hit a flurry of 3-pointers in the second quarter that kept the Beavers at bay during Louisville's few defensive lulls. They can get All-American performances out of Hines-Allen, able to score with her back to the basket or cross someone over and stroke a 17-foot jumper, as she did for her final points Sunday.
The Cardinals can do a lot offensively in general, unselfish with their ball movement collectively and quick individually getting into space. They had 21 assists on 30 field goals Sunday and 38 assists on 63 field goals in the regional. They can outscore a lot of people.
At their best, they don't need to.
And even with only 36 hours to prepare, they were at their best Sunday.
"That's really what we've been able to hang our hat on all year," associate coach Stephanie Norman said. "Put a scouting report together and then guard the crap out of people."
They will have to do it against even better teams in Columbus. But the plan will be the same.