The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders want to raise the bar for their program, especially as they move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA in July.
Doing it with NCAA tournament victories will have to wait another year.
The Blue Raiders turned the ball over 24 times Sunday and lost their fifth straight first-round game 74-49 to Louisville in a game they never led. They did get within a point three times in the second half but couldn't close the gap playing on the Cardinals' home floor as the No. 12 seed in the Oklahoma City regional.
"I think we just take it as a learning experience, and it just gets us one step closer to our goal," Middle Tennessee junior forward Ebony Rowe said.
Middle Tennessee (25-8) came into the tournament having won seven straight in a season where coach Rick Insell tried to prepare his Blue Raiders for the postseason with a tough non-conference schedule. But they lost in overtime at Iowa and Tennessee in November, and they just couldn't hold onto the ball against the reach of the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center.
They turned the ball over five times in the first 5 minutes, and Louisville finished with 18 steals. The Cardinals converted those turnovers into 31 points along with a 50-12 scoring difference in the paint.
Senior guard Kortni Jones led Middle Tennessee with 14 points, and senior forward Icelyn Elie added 13. Rowe had 12 points and 12 rebounds for her 21st double-double.
"We don't just have a team at Middle Tennessee, we've got a program," Insell said. "If you look, you'll see the last 10 out of the last 11 years we've been in the NCAA tournament. What we've got to do is take it one more step. That's what we're in the process of building right now."
Shoni Schimmel scored 20 points, and Monique Reid added 15 for Louisville. Bria Smith had 10 points and 10 rebounds, while Jude Schimmel added 11 points.
The Cardinals now are 4-1 all-time against Middle Tennessee, and jumped on the Blue Raiders from the start in this one.
Louisville outshot Middle Tennessee, hitting 53.8 percent (30 of 63) compared to 34.6 percent (18 of 52). The Cardinals also had 18 steals while forcing 24 turnovers, which they turned into 31 points. The Blue Raiders managed to stay close for a while by hitting eight of their first 17 3-point attempts before missing their last eight beyond the arc.
"When you can force a team of their caliber to turn the ball over 24 times, you know you're doing something right because they're a very solid basketball team," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
The Blue Raiders opened the second half with Elie hitting her fourth 3-pointer followed by a 3 from Jones. Reid finally scored Louisville's first bucket of the half on a putback with 15:42 remaining. The teams swapped buckets, with Middle Tennessee closing to 42-40 on a 3-pointer from Laken Leonard from the left corner with 10:23 to go.
Louisville answered with 10 straight points over the next 73 seconds. Shoni Schimmel started the scoring with a three-point play, and then Smith drove for a layup. Schimmel added a bucket on an assist from Smith before her sister, Jude, hit Louisville's second 3 of the game with 8:47 to go for a 52-42 advantage. The Cardinals just padded the lead from there, going up by as many as 25 points late.
Insell credited Shoni Schimmel with taking over in that stretch.
"When we cut it one, they were not going to put it anyone else's hands but hers. She was going to make a play or knock down a shot. She did that," Insell said. "That's what your marquee player is supposed to do. That's why we go to Ebony, why we have the ball in Kortni's hands."