LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)Sunday was Senior Day at Louisville, and the elder stateswomen for the No. 5 Cardinals set the tone early.
Coach Jeff Walz started his five seniors, and Jessica Laemmle, a 5-2 walk-on guard, scored the first points on a 15-foot pull-up jumper off a screen after her teammates grabbed two offensive rebounds on the opening possession.
Fellow senior Jazmine Jones scored 18 points to lead the Cardinals, who never trailed in a 70-53 victory over Virginia Tech.
Louisville (27-3, 16-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) got big contributions from its seniors, who set a school record with their 124th victory over their four-year career. Jones made 8-of-17 shots, and Kylee Shook added 15 points and 12 rebounds to help Louisville earn its fifth straight victory.
Walz credited his seniors for a season that ended with the team finishing atop the ACC standings for the third straight year and their first outright conference title since 2001.
“I don’t think anybody expected Jaz to play at the level she’s playing as a senior,” Walz said of Jones, who entered Sunday as the fourth best shooter in the league at 55.1%. “Bianca (Dunham), Yacine (Diop), Kylee, and that’s what’s really separated us and allowed us to have the year we’ve had is because those returning kids all got better. It’s something you hope for, but it doesn’t always happen.”
The Hokies (21-8, 11-7) didn’t score for the first 5:40 and were down 14-3 with less than 90 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
The start was disappointing for Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks. His team entered the regular-season finale winners in five of its last six.
“We knew we were up against a lot,” he said. “We just didn’t execute or play as well as we like, but a lot of that had to do with Louisville and the way played.”
They used an 8-0 run to cut their deficit to 26-18 on Aisha Sheppard’s layup midway through the second quarter. However, they would never get closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Diop, a senior who transferred from Pittsburgh two years ago, got a putback jumper at the buzzer gave Louisville a 37-24 lead.
Virginia Tech entered Sunday as the ACC’s second-best 3-point team, averaging 7.4 per game. Louisville held the Hokies to just 3-of-15 and one of their last nine.
“We knew we had to jump on them early,” said Shook, a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Semifinalist and ACC leader in blocked shots.
Sunday marked the return to the court for Louisville guards Dana Evans and Elizabeth Balogun since they both suffered ankle injuries in a win at Georgia Tech on Feb. 20. Neither started, but Evans, the Cardinals leading scorer this season, added 11 points.
Freshman Elizabeth Kitley led the Hokies with 17 points. Taja Cole added 12 points and 10 rebounds for Virginia Tech.
With No. 4 Stanford falling twice this week, Louisville has a chance to move up on Monday. Aside from one week when they were ranked second, the Cardinals have not been any higher than fifth in any other poll this season.
Sheppard, Virginia Tech’s leading scorer, finished with just four points, but she became the Hokies 28th member of the 1,000-point club. She entered Sunday with 997 points.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies entered Sunday with a chance for a coveted double-bye in next week’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and a chance to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume. Still, their chances for making their first NCAA Tournament since 2006 remain very good.
Louisville: The Cardinals entered Sunday having already clinched the conference title outright and the top seed in the conference tourney. Getting Evans and Balogun back will only help their chances as they pursue a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
Virginia Tech will start play in the ACC Tournament likely on Thursday.
Louisville advances to the ACC Tournament as its top seed and will play Friday afternoon.