Freshman point guard Shoni Schimmel directed a young-but-poised offense with 19 points Sunday, and the Cardinals marked their return to the NCAA tournament by beating Vanderbilt 81-62 in a first-round game.
The Cardinals (21-12) failed to make the tournament last season after losing to Connecticut in the 2009 title game, a one-year absence that motivates a team starting Schimmel and two sophomores. The failure to make last year's tournament was especially galling because Louisville hosted opening-round games at Freedom Hall.
Coach Jeff Walz made his players attend the other teams' practices and see what they were missing. It was tough to watch Kentucky, Michigan State, Bowling Green and Liberty practice on the Cardinals' home court - Monique Reid called it embarrassing.
It was a lot better to be playing Sunday, and playing as well as they have all season.
"Definitely," said Reid, who had a team-high 22 points. "Coming off last year's season, I'm definitely excited to be playing."
For the second year in a row, the Commodores (20-12) ended their season on Xavier's home court. Last year, Vanderbilt reached the second round before losing to the Musketeers by a point. They never led in this one.
Jasmine Lister scored 13 for the Commodores.
Tia Gibbs added a career-high 19 points, and Keshia Hines had 16 for the Cardinals, who shot 60 percent from the field and went 13 of 14 from the free-throw line.
"Whoo!" Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We lost the game probably in the first half. I don't say that often. The confidence we allowed them to get on offense really hurt us."
Xavier coach Kevin McGuff watched the first half from a seat in what is usually the student section, chewing gum and sizing up the potential second-round opponent. The second-seeded Musketeers played South Dakota State in the later first-round game.
Vanderbilt was back in a very familiar place. Balcomb built Xavier into a prominent program for seven years, getting the Musketeers to their first Elite Eight. She returned to the Cintas Center for the tournament last year and lost by one to her former team.
Her return trip quickly turned into a blowout.
Louisville used its quickness to build a 12-6 lead, forcing three quick turnovers. Vanderbilt guard Gabby Smith, playing in her hometown, brought the Commodores back by scoring eight straight points. Her three-point play tied it at 16 midway through the first half.
That's when Louisville's tough man-to-man defense and balance took over. Five Cardinals scored during an 11-0 run that built the lead to 27-16. Vanderbilt never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
"As soon as they started making shots, we backed down again," Smith said.
Gibbs hit back-to-back 3s from the right corner during an 8-0 spurt that put Louisville up 41-26 at halftime. The sophomore played her freshman season at Vanderbilt before transferring to her hometown team, and has kept in touch with her Commodore friends.
"As much as I want to say it was just another first-round NCAA tournament game, it meant a lot," said Gibbs, who was 7 of 9 from the field. "Since I transferred, this is a game I wanted to play."
Vanderbilt spent virtually all of halftime in the locker room, returning to the court with little more than a minute left before the game resumed. Whatever the Commodores talked about didn't translate to the court.
Schimmel took over by hitting three consecutive baskets. She got a rebound and drove the length of the court for a bank shot, then hit a pull-up jumper that made it 49-32 and gave the Commodores a sense of desperation.
Vanderbilt went with a quicker lineup and scored the next 12 points out of a timeout. Christina Foggie's steal and layup made it 49-42 with 12 minutes to go.
Louisville went inside to regain control. Hines scored eight straight points - four on free throws - at the start of a 13-0 run that put the Cardinals ahead 62-44 with 8:11 left.