Louisville makes statement in battle for ACC lead

Jones helps Louisville pull away with tough jumper (0:21)

Jazmine Jones crosses up her defender and drives to the hoop, shoving her way through a pair of NC State defenders for a crucial basket. (0:21)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- After two consecutive losses, No. 9 Louisville was itching to return to the court and have back one of its missing pieces, sophomore guard Elizabeth Balogun. Meanwhile, No. 4 NC State wanted to impress its sold-out crowd at Reynolds Coliseum and take firm control of the ACC race.

In Thursday's meeting of the top two teams in the league this season, something had to give. And it was the Wolfpack's offense. They struggled, shooting just 32% from the field, and the Cardinals won 66-59. Now the teams are tied at 11-2 atop the ACC. And a former ACC team -- Maryland of the Big Ten -- just slid into the fourth No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, according to bracketologist Charlie Creme.

Earlier this week, South Carolina secured its No. 1 ranking with a victory over UConn, and the Gamecocks, Baylor and Oregon all have kind of separated themselves from the pack -- at least as of mid-February.

But who might get the fourth No. 1 seed? That's had several different answers. Now, perhaps Louisville (22-3 overall) will work its way back up there -- although coach Jeff Walz said Thursday that wasn't really a concern for him. What matters most, he said, is being one of the top 16 seeds and having a chance to host the early rounds. After that?

"You've got to get a break here or there," Walz said. "I'm telling you, we can get beat by anyone if we don't come out focused and prepared to play."

The Cardinals definitely were locked in Thursday. And Balogun's presence helped. She missed the Feb. 6 loss to Florida State and Sunday's defeat at Syracuse while she was with the Nigerian national team at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia. Nigeria qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Walz said some in the Louisville fan base have been critical of him for allowing Balogun to leave the Cardinals to play for her national team, but he said he never hesitated.

"As I tell all my fan base, sometimes we need to get out of our own way as fans and understand what's best for these young women," Walz said. "Elizabeth is going to get the opportunity to do something that a lot of us dream of.

"Did it cost us? Yeah it did. But at the end of the day, it's ACC basketball games. Which, they're important, I understand. But we need to really get a grasp on it, that she's going to get a chance to walk in opening ceremonies of the 2020 Olympics. You just can't put a price tag on that. Our players were in complete support of her. They wanted her to be part of it."

Balogun, who had nine points and seven rebounds Thursday, said she thought Walz's decision to let her go was "a father move. That's something like a father would do for his child. I just said, 'Thank you, thank you for letting me go.'"

Balogun was just part of the Cardinals' attack, though. Guards Jazmine Jones and Dana Evans combined for 33 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. And forward Kylee Shook was very disruptive against NC State center Elissa Cunane, holding her to 1-of-12 shooting -- her only make was a 3-pointer -- on the way to 10 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block.

"We weren't in attacking mode," Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. "You've got to compete and be aggressive. Louisville did that and we didn't."

In a season when the ACC seems down in general -- including perennial power Notre Dame struggling so much -- the league still has two very strong teams in the Cardinals and the Wolfpack.

Louisville, after Thursday, looks to be the most dominant again. NC State (22-2) knows what it has to work on. Neither one has another currently ranked foe on the remainder of the regular-season schedule. Could they end up co-champs and meet again in the ACC tournament? Odds are pretty good.