Louisville celebrates its second upset victory in as many days, this one an 86-78 win over No. 2-seeded Tennessee in the Elite Eight of the Oklahoma City Regional Tuesday that carries the Cardinals to just their second Final Four appearance in program history. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)
Louisville celebrates its second upset victory in as many days, this one an 86-78 win over No. 2-seeded Tennessee in the Elite Eight of the Oklahoma City Regional Tuesday that carries the Cardinals to just their second Final Four appearance in program history. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Louisville's "David vs. Goliath" story is good for the game

April 3, 2013 - 2:27pm
No. 5 Louisville 86, No. 2 Tennessee 78

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was the same song, second verse, in the Oklahoma City Regional final Tuesday night as fifth-seeded Louisville, cast in the role of the proverbial David, slew one of the Goliaths of women’s college basketball to punch its ticket to next week’s Final Four in New Orleans.

True, Tuesday night’s giant -- second-seeded Tennessee -- wasn’t quite as big as Baylor, the behemoth the upstarts from Louisville felled on Sunday, busting pretty much everybody’s bracket in the process. Before Sunday, Baylor had lost just once in the last two years. Despite the disparity in seeds, Louisville (27-8) and Tennessee (27-7) entered Tuesday’s game with similar records. But whether one based it on history (Tennessee owns eight national championships, has advanced to 18 NCAA Final Fours and has appeared 26 Elite Eights, winning in 18 of those regional finals games; Louisville had made only one previous Elite Eight appearance, in 2009, when it advanced to the national championship game where the Cardinals fell to UConn); this year’s conference finish (Tennessee won the SEC regular-season championship; Louisville finished third in the Big East); size (despite a decided height advantage over Tennessee’s 5-6 point guard Ariel Massengale, on average, Louisville’s seven-player rotation gave up an inch apiece to the Vols, whose players also appeared longer, inch-for-inch, especially in the post); or raw talent, the Lady Vols were the heavy favorite to advance.

Even Louisville head coach Jeff Walz pointed to the superiority of the Vols – on paper. “You look at their roster and they’ve probably got seven McDonald’s All-Americans on the team. You know, we have three – well, no, two.” Unlike Sara Hammond and Bria Smith, who were McDonald’s All-Americans, Shoni Schimmel, Walz went on to explain, was a WBCA and Parade All-American, but was not named to the McDonald’s All-American team.

Walz doesn’t view that as a negative, however. Instead, he seems to relish his team’s role as an underdog (even though being the No. 16 /17 team in the country makes Louisville a somewhat larger–than-usual “David”) and takes pride in having found gems like Antonita Slaughter and Monique Reid, whom other programs overlooked.

“When we came down here,” said Walz, “I just use the old David and Goliath. Nobody thought we could do this.  I don’t care – there is nobody that was like, ‘Well, I think Louisville could possibly win.’  They may have been, ‘Well, they might be able to keep it a game for a half against Baylor.’ Then we figure out a way to win that. And then tonight’s game."

Heading into the Oklahoma City Regional, Tennessee might not have seemed as indomitable as Baylor, but beyond question, the Vols were the better team – on paper – in nearly every offensive statistical category: The Vols ranked fourth in scoring offense, averaging 77.7 points per game; Louisville ranked 20th, at 71.6. The Vols ranked 10th in field-goal percentage, at 44.9 percent; the Cards ranked 18th, at 44 percent. While neither squad could have been called a great three-point shooting program based on their regular-season performances, Tennessee was the better three-point shooting team, at least in terms of accuracy (11th in the nation at 36.5 percent from beyond the arc) as compared to Louisville (130th, at 30.9 percent from long range) – leading at least this observer to believe that Walz would want to avoid getting into a three-point shooting contest with the Vols. (Baylor, it seems, was a much better target for such a tactic, as, in one of their few areas of weakness, the Bears weighed in at No. 307 out of the 343 programs rated with just 3.2 three-point field goals made per game.)

Of course, on paper, Baylor should have mopped the floor with Louisville on Sunday, and we all know now how that one turned out. Which is why they play the game on the hardwood and not on a computer.

All the numbers aside, though, there was the question of what impact the emotional high of Sunday’s upset would have on this young team: Would they still be riding the adrenaline rush of the victory two days later? Or would there be a letdown, a sense of physical or mental exhaustion?

Walz recognized the very real effects of the fatigue factor. “I was concerned too, because I was worried about the exhaustion,” he told Full Court. “I mean, we were getting tired. I mean, Shoni  [Schimmel] played all 40 minutes tonight. Bria [Smith] fouls out. We were getting physically tired. And I could see it. But I just kept telling them in the timeouts, like, ‘You’ve got three minutes. If you can’t go for three minutes, I don’t know what to tell you.'"

Shoni Schimmel Shot Louisville junior Shoni Schimmel (No. 23) was named the Oklahoma City Regional's Most Outstanding Player after leading her team to its second straight upset of a dominant women's basketball power. Schimmel finished Tuesday's match-up with second-seeded Tennessee with a game-high 24 points, plus three assists, two rebounds and a steal, but five turnovers. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

All that in turn led one to wonder what Walz and the Cards had left in their bag of tricks. What could Louisville trot out on Tuesday in its quest to pull off another upset? Would it come down to defense? Again, on paper and in what must have been a major shock to any Tennessee loyalist who bothered to check the rankings, Louisville was the better defensive team of the two, both in scoring defense (Louisville gave up 56.4 points per game this season, to Tennessee’s 63.4 points allowed) and in three-point-percentage defense, where the Cardinals held opponents to just 28.8 percent from beyond the arc, while the Lady Vols allowed opponents 29.9 shooting from downtown. (The two teams were on a rough par in field-goal percentage defense, with Tennessee holding a slight advantage in allowing opponents 37.6 percent from the field, while Louisville allowed 38.1-percent field-goal shooting.) But would that edge on defense be enough to offset what seemed to be Tennessee’s considerably better offense and rebounding margin (+6.3 boards per game for the Lady Vols to just +3.2 rebounds per game for the Cardinals)?

In the end, however, Tuesday night proved yet again what a plucky team with belief in itself and a will to win can do. There was no new offensive strategy, no clever defensive scheme. As Walz described it after the game, “We’re out there defending, we’re out there playing, and we don’t know what we’re doing half the time. I’ve got some in man and some in zone, and my whole coaching staff is saying, ‘What are we playing?’ And I go: ‘I don’t know. Who cares?’

“But that’s what our kids know. Our kids know we’re just going to try to go out there and be as unconventional as we can and have fun. And that’s what we’re doing.”

That – and the faith. And the fight. As Walz put it later, after most of the camera crews had packed it in and headed home, “They just continued to fight, and fight. They figured out a way.”

For the second game in a row, Louisville came out and struck the favorites early and hard, reeling off a 6-1 run to start the game while Tennessee waited nearly four minutes before sinking its first field goal.  Just as it seemed like Bashaara Graves and Kamiko Williams were ready to get Tennessee into the thick of the fray, Louisville’s Sara Hammond and Shoni Schimmel knocked down back-to-back three-pointers to ignite another 8-2 run for the Cardinals.

On Sunday, it seemed like the Cardinals simply couldn’t miss. On Tuesday night, Louisville missed quite a few, but they were still hot enough, and they were in attack mode from the opening tip. By slightly past the halfway mark of the first period, Louisville had opened up a 10-point lead, which the Cardinals expanded to a 17 point-advantage at the 3:49 mark of the period. They headed to the locker room at the intermission still up by double-digits, 41-26.

On this night, Louisville shot the ball only modestly better (43.6 percent) from the field than its opponent (42.3 percent) in the opening frame, but they maximized that advantage by taking far more shots on goal – 39 of them to Tennessee’s 26 in that span. And though the Cardinals shot an uninspiring 30.8 percent from three-point range in the first half, they netted four of their 13 first-half long-ball attempts. Conversely, Tennessee, who was ostensibly the better three-point shooting team, netted none of its seven first-half attempts from long distance. That 12-point difference from beyond the arc accounted for most of the Cardinals’ 15-point first-half advantage.

The Cardinals were able to take those extra shots because they out-rebounded Tennessee (on paper, the better rebounding team) 24-14 in the first half, and 10-2 on the offensive glass.

And then, they held on to that advantage and rode it home to victory, even though Tennessee rallied back, winning the second half by a 52-45 margin. The Vols were able to stop the hemorrhaging in large part by hitting the boards in earnest in the second half, enough to fill that 10-rebound hole, knot the battle of the boards at 38 apiece by game’s end and take a one-board advantage (15-14) in offensive rebounds.

Louisville’s coach and players all point to attitude and atmospherics far more than any particular offensive or defensive strategy to explain their remarkable success in the past two games. On Saturday night, before confronting Baylor, Louisville prepared mentally by watching film – but in this case, the film they were watching was not a video breakdown of Baylor games but  Survive and Advance, the story of Jimmy Valvano and the North Carolina State men’s team’s march to the 1983 national championship against all odds. Just as Baylor was viewed as all but unbeatable before the impossible happened on Sunday, the Phi Slamma Jamma crew from Houston was viewed as the prohibitive favorite in that campaign until the underdogs from N.C. State beat the unbeatable.

After that inspiration spurred his team to its epic upset of Baylor, Walz decided to double-down on his unconventional approach to game prep. Once again, the evening before the Tennessee game, he gathered his team for a viewing of Survive and Advance – this time watching just the finale. But then Walz upped the ante; as the credits rolled, he punched a number into a speakerphone, and said, ‘Ladies, there’s somebody that wants to talk to you.”

When the players realized that the person on the other end of the line was none other than Dereck Whittenburg, the executive producer of the film and one of the heroes of that famous North Carolina State upset (it was Whittenburg’s slightly off-the-mark 30-footer with the score tied in the final seconds that Lorenzo Charles pulled out of the air and dropped into the basket for the win), Walz described their reaction as, “You’re kidding me!”

“Because they weren’t born,” Walz continued, reveling in the excitement of his players. “They weren’t born ‘til ’90 something. So they’re sitting there, ‘There’s no way.’ ‘This is not him.’ ‘This is unbelievable!’”

Walz had made the connection with Whittenburg after the director of Survive and Advance, who lives in Louisville and had also done a documentary on Shoni Schimmel, had contacted Walz to congratulate him on the Baylor win and learned of the role the film on which he had collaborated with Whittenburg had played in Louisville’s preparation for that game.

Whittenburg, who had gone on to coach at Fordham,  "just talked to our kids about having fun, staying loose, believing in yourselves," Walz recounted. "‘It’s you against the world,’ and ‘You’ve got to have each other’s backs.’  And it was awesome! … It really meant a lot to our players.

After Tuesday's win, Shoni Schimmel spoke of the role played both by the film and by the faith she and her teammates have in themselves, their coaching staff and each other: “I think that starts with our coach. He believed in us, so we believed in him. So that’s the mutual feelings you have towards each other – you believe in us and we’ll believe in you. And after watching the N.C. State documentary, [it] just put the fire in our eyes. And we were going out there to win and that’s exactly what we did is beat Baylor, and we beat Tennessee, and now we’re going to a Final Four.”

Her sister Jude added: “I think we’ve known all along we had everything we needed to get to this point. But we owe a lot to each other, and wee owe a lot to our coaches. Our coaches have been showing us a lot of inspirational things like that documentary – the N.C. State one – and a couple of videos of Muhammad Ali. We went and visited the Muhammad Ali Center. I think it just has a lot to do with seeing all the underdog things like that, and it motivated us even more to believe in each other and believe in ourselves.”

Which all makes for a terrific storyline. And there's little doubt that without a fundamental faith in one's self, and in the value and attainability of one's objectives, one can achieve little -- in basketball or in life.

But the only problem with faith as an explanation for inexplicable success is that it really doesn’t explain much. Did Baylor lose because the Lady Bears lacked faith in themselves? If anything, one might argue that they believed in themselves a little too much.

Tennessee, too, had been cast in the unaccustomed role of the underdog for much of this year. The Vols started the season with a new head coach stepping into the role filled for nearly 40 years by the legendary Pat Summitt. As if that weren’t enough, they had also lost all five of their starters to graduation. Two of those were All-Americans; three were drafted into the WNBA. The 2012-13 squad not only featured no returning starters, it had just two seniors (Kamiko Williams and Taber Spani played their last college game on Tuesday) and faced the prospect of integrating five newcomers into the rotation. That’s why the once-dominant Vols were picked preseason to finish fourth in the SEC. And that was before the Vols dropped their season opener at lowly Chattanooga, 71-80, at which point only the most rabid of the Tennessee faithful would have forecast a trip to the Elite Eight.

Like Louisville, Tennessee had suffered adversity over the course of the season, losing players to injury (though perhaps not as many veterans as had been sidelined for the Cardinals). If Louisville’s Monique Reid was, in Walz's words, “playing on one leg,” then Tennessee’s Isabelle Harrison, a key cog in its post defense, wasn’t doing much better, only recently returned to the lineup after having undergone surgery to repair the meniscus she tore in her already injured left knee in January in action against Notre Dame

So not only was Tennessee, perhaps even more so than Louisville, an underdog who had outperformed expectations this season, but its players, too, believed they could win. Warlick didn’t disclose what was on the Lady Vols’ pregame movie playlist, but, according to Williams, “Throughout the whole game we believed in ourselves. The coaching staff tells you to go out there and fight. And we’ve been in situations like that before. And we practice it in practice, with practice guys. Having drills where we get stops. And that’s what we tried to focus on was getting stops and convert[ing] on the offensive end.”

“This team never gives up,” agreed Spani, who, after finishing with a team-high 20 points Tuesday, joined Williams (12 points, four rebounds, two assists and four steals), Most Outstanding Player Shoni Schimmel (game-high 24 points, plus three assists), Louisville’s Bria Smith (13 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Baylor’s Odyssey Sims, who almost singlehandedly carried Baylor Sunday, on the Oklahoma City Regional All-Tournament Team. “And we believed in each other,” Spani continued. “We just put ourselves in too big of a deficit at the beginning and our defense wasn’t the way it’s been the last few games. It let us down.”

Spani layup Taber Spani led a second-half Tennessee comeback that fell one bucket short of tying the score in the final minutes and shifting the momentum of the game. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Tennessee’s faith and fight carried them back from a deficit that reached a nadir of 19 points early in the second half to within three points by the 4:28 mark. But that’s where a valiant effort fell short.

Spani, who had gone 0-for-3 from the field in the opening half, only to spearhead the Vols’ comeback with 20 points on seven-of-11 shooting in the second, hoisted what could have been the game-tying three. It was off the mark, and Williams, who was also instrumental in the Tennessee rally, was called for a foul on the rebound. Reid made both, and Jude Schimmel netted two more from the charity stripe less than a minute later to give the Cardinals seven points worth of breathing space.

To her eternal credit and unlike Kim Mulkey, Warlick didn't blame the refs -- or Louisville's physical play -- for her team's loss, though once again, there were plenty of calls and noncalls in this game for either side to quibble with. Instead, she praised her opponent, lauded her seniors, voiced her justifiable pride in her team's fighting effort and successful season, and faced up to facts:

"Well, you gotta get stops and rebounding. We didn't [do] those, especially [in the] first half. And [you] can't give up 10 offensive rebounds the first half, and we just dug ourselves in a hole. So we started battling a little too late," said Warlick after the game.

"We just talked about just keep battling and keep fighting. And we're down and then Taber gets a shot at a three. And it's a good shot. It's a good look. And it didn't go. And then we fouled, and then they were up by five, and so we just -- we needed to make that three to get the momentum and it just didn't go down."

The Vols had one last chance when Meighan Simmons, who had regressed to the injudicious shot selection of her younger years for most of the game, finally discovered a hot hand in the final minutes. Simmons had been scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting in the opening half, but continued to heave up bricks until Warlick finally sat her five minutes into the second half. She returned with 9:36 left to play, and finally netted her first bucket of the game, a trey, with 8:28 remaining on the clock. She would drain three more from beyond the arc the rest of the way, to finish with 12 points on four-of-16 from the field and four-of-12 from long distance.

One of Simmons' long-balls sliced the nets with just over three minutes to go, making it a two-possession game, 72-68, with plenty of time on the clock and bringing the Tennessee nation to its feet. But from there, the Schimmel sisters took over, sandwiching a Jude Schimmel three-pointer between a pair of Shoni Schimmel layups over the next minute and change. Tennessee was forced to foul, and Louisville was near perfect from the stripe down the stretch, hanging on for the 86-78 victory.

So did Spani’s three-ball fall short because her faith in herself, in her team, in her cause was somehow lacking, or at the very least, less than that of Louisville? Did Jude Schimmel’s trey drop because her faith – or that of her teammates – was somehow deeper or stronger or otherwise better than that of the Vols? Or did Holly Warlick simply have the wrong movies on tap for her team on Monday evening?

I don’t know. I don’t really think so, but I don’t have any better explanation for how or why the better team on paper lost the game. Chalk it up to the madness that is March.

What I do know is that Louisville’s joyful approach to the game is just plain fun to watch -- as are the Cardinals' lightning storms of three-balls ripping through the nets and Shoni Schimmel's no-look passes ... and no-look circus shots. And as much as I feel for Brittney Griner, finishing her illustrious college career fighting back tears and blaming herself for a “bad night" that let down her teammates and Baylor's many fans (a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double that can only be called “bad” by the lofty standards we’ve come to expect of a talent as great as Griner) –- as much as I feel for Holly Warlick being unable to put the finishing flourish on her own storybook season by returning the Vols to the Final Four in her first year at the helm –- I also believe that the improbable upsets that have highlighted the Spokane-Oklahoma City side of this year’s bracket are at least as good for the sport as the disciplined dominance that we’ve seen from the top seeds on the Bridgeport-Norfolk side.

It’s good for women’s basketball to have a different narrative, a plot twist if you will. Like Walz told Full Court as Chesapeake Energy Arena emptied Tuesday, “If we’re going to continue to grow our game and get parity and make more games exciting to watch, we’ve got to get players that are willing to not just go to the same schools. … It’s what it is: Women like to go with security. Men, and I’m one of ‘em, we have a big enough ego, we can go to a program that’s ranked 327 out of 340 and go, ‘I’m taking them to a Final Four.’ Women like to have that security, and I’m hoping that we can continue to get it to where players believe in more programs, and say, ‘You know what? This program has been to two Final Fours in five years.’ I mean, besides UConn and Notre Dame and Oklahoma maybe, I don’t know anyone else that’s done that. Stanford.” {And, of course, Baylor and, a few years back, Tennessee.}

Mixing up the narrative is good for the fans as well, said Walz. “I personally think it’s great for women’s basketball [when things don’t go according to script]. We need more teams. We need more people to cheer for. We need more stories. You know, you can’t run with the same story for an entire season without coming to a point where it’s like, “Agghh, what else can we write?’ So I think the more stories that we have, the better it is for our game. This is why the men’s game is so exciting. Who expected Wichita State to be in the Final Four? You know, Florida Gulf Coast, look what they did! You’ve got stories, you learn about people. You learn about programs. And I think that’s what needs to hopefully continue to go on in our game, so we can grow.”

Some might take issue with Walz' gender stereotypes, but like most stereotypes, there's a kernel of truth at the core. But one thing no one can argue: Louisville has given us one heck of a storyline over the last week. As has Cal. Notre Dame and UConn have their stories too, though for the most part, those have become too familiar to us to be fully appreciated. Even so, as the tournament heads into the Final Four, one or the other of the two top-seeded teams still standing remains a prohibitive favorite to take the title.

But Louisville and California have opened wide the windows of possibility. No one is invincible. With enough faith and fight -- and talent -- anyone can win it all. And while personally, I’ll miss the prospect of seeing Griner dunk in the national championship game, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Cardinals' hero’s tale turns out next week in New Orleans.