NEW ORLEANS -- The Louisville Cardinals took us on a magical ride through this year’s postseason, a ride that opened our hearts and minds to the possibilities implicit in dreaming big. They refused to let injuries, statistics, the expectations of others, an opponent’s home-court advantage or the star power of the game’s biggest names limit their imaginations or their performance.
The Cardinals were not your classic Cinderella team, sneaking their way into an NCAA bid because a favorite tanked in the conference tournament and then riding the mistakes of others to an improbable result. Rather, they had been a good team all season -- boasting a 23-8 record heading into the tournament, finishing third in the tough Big East, ranked in the middle tier of the Top 25. The Cardinals were supposed to be in the tournament, to make it to the second round, perhaps even to the Sweet 16. They just weren’t supposed to be here, on this night, in New Orleans, on the biggest stage in women’s college basketball, playing for a national title.
But Louisville head coach Jeff Walz refused to let his troops believe that. "Why not us?" he asked of the race for the championship. And using every tool he could latch onto, from movies ("Survive and Advance," "Glory Road" and "Miracle on Ice" all made the team's pregame playlist) to field trips (they visited sites associated with the career of Muhammad Ali) to phone calls from underdogs who had succeeded in defying the odds, he steeped his team in the lore of the upset and got them to believe. Dream big, he told them. Work and play hard. Believe in yourself and your teammates. With enough faith and fight and even fun a good team can ascend to greatness.
The Cardinals believed him. They're "just a group of young ladies who've bought into what we're trying to do as a team and as a coaching staff. They just completely came together and said, 'Hey, we're going out here and try to defy all odds and see if we can't pull off the biggest upset of the tournament, for sure.' And that was to beat Baylor."
And one by one, Louisville's David started toppling the giants of women's college basketball until they found themselves here in tonight's national championship game, a feat that no other fifth-seed has ever achieved. The initial reaction was shock when mighty Baylor went down to defeat in the Sweet 16. And then surprise when second-seeded Tennessee fell too. Cal, another No. 2 seed, went next. And somewhere along the way, a lot of the rest of us believing too -- at least a little.
"Right now, anything can happen, so why not us?" Walz asked us.
"Why not?" we began to ask ourselves.
A cynic would say that tonight is when the magic ran out for Louisville, as the Connecticut Huskies trampled the fairy tale ending the Cardinals had hoped for in a 93-60 rout, the most lopsided victory in NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament history. UConn dominated Louisville by nearly any measure one can pick: The Huskies out-shot a team that had gotten here by shooting the lights out against Baylor, the No. 1 of all seeds, 53 percent to 37.1 percent from the floor. The Huskies dominated the boards by a 44-28 margin and the offensive glass 13-8, giving UConn 16 second-chance points to Louisville’s seven.
Louisville’s game plan through the tournament has been simply to throw as many points on the board as possible. Of course, that’s always the ultimate objective in a game of basketball, but Walz has made plain that he didn’t care how many shots it took to get there, how efficient his players were. It was a simple strategy of shoot, shoot, shoot and score, score, score.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma laid down the gauntlet on Monday. Asked about the sharpshooting skills of Louisville’s Antonita Slaughter, Auriemma said of his counterpart Jeff Walz: “He’s got to be a genius, that guy. Because every time I see that kid catch the ball, she’s wide open. And I can understand if it’s the first game of the tournament, but here they are now in their fifth game in the NCAA Tournament and the kid for 40 minutes is wide open every time she catches it. … [S]he has made more big shots in this tournament than anybody I can remember in any five-game stretch. So all I can say is if we’re there and we have a hand in her face and she still makes them, then God bless them, they deserve to win.”
The Huskies found a way to shut Slaughter down. Louisville got a few open looks in the first six to eight minutes. With newly anointed men's national championship coach and Hall-of-Famer Rick Pitino cheering them on from the stands -- the entire Louisville men's team wanted to come as well, but couldn't get approval from the NCAA in time -- the Cardinals struck the first blow on a trey by Sara Hammond just 16 seconds into the game. Sheronne Vails drained a jumper two minutes later, Bria Smith and Hammond each knocked down a pair of foul shots, and Hammond and Monique Reid dropped in a layup apiece. Offset by UConn’s answers, the Cardinals had amassed a five-point lead by the 14:44 mark, and visions of joint men’s and women’s championships were dancing in the heads of the fans clad in red.
Except … that’s as big a lead as Louisville ever got. And it didn’t last long. Except for a Bria Smith free throw (one of a pair), the Cardinals would not score again for more than six minutes. In the meantime, UConn’s Bria Hartley picked Shoni Schimmel’s pocket and dropped in a layup to tie the score at 14 each. Twenty seconds later, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis took a feed from Hartley and pulled up for a jumper. Fouled in the process, she converted the traditional three-point play to give Connecticut a lead that would only grow from there. Hartley’s jumper ignited a 19-0 Connecticut run that left the Huskies with a 29-14 lead with a little more than nine minutes left in the opening half. After that, things went from bad to worse for Louisville, as the Huskies headed to the locker room holding a 48-29 advantage.
But perhaps more importantly, note the names from the Louisville roster that weren’t part of that early scoring surge: Antonita Slaughter, who had led the Cardinals to the title game with an 18-point performance and six-of-10 three-point shooting in the national semifinal upset over second-seeded California, was held scoreless during that span. She would finish with just nine points, going one-for-four from downtown. Shoni Schimmel, who with the help of 21 points from Slaughter, led Louisville to its epic upset of Baylor with 22 points, six-of-14 field-goal shooting, and five-of-eight marksmanship from long range – also scoreless. Schimmel would also wind up with just nine points on the night, and on abysmal three-of-15 (20 percent) field-goal shooting and an even worse one-for-eight from the perimeter.
That was no accident. Asked to describe his defensive game plan, Auriemma responded: “We spent so much time and energy guarding Shoni Schimmel and Antonita Slaughter. We spent so much time and energy guarding those guys. That was our focus the entire game. And Jude Schimmel (who finished with seven points) when she was in the game as well.
“So whatever anybody else did, we were going to have to live with it, “ Auriemma continued. “As long as those three players didn’t dominate the game. And our guards did an amazing job on those three. Amazing. That, I thought, was going to be the difference in the game, how well we did against those three players. Because, let’s face it, those three have carried them to this point. Those three in the … five games before tonight have dominated every guard combination that they’ve played against. And we were determined that that wasn’t going to happen tonight.”
Kelly Faris, who logged 16 points (include four of her seven three-point attempts), nine rebounds, six assists, a block and two steals in the final game of her UConn career, deserves much of the credit for shutting down Shoni Schimmel, said Auriemma. And perhaps every bit as important as the 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals that earned freshman post Breanna Stewart the trophy as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, was her lock-down defense on Slaughter.
“I don’t think Shoni Schimmel got a lot of open looks,” said Auriemma, “and that was Kelly Faris. And Antonita Slaughter didn’t get many open looks, either, and a lot of times that was Stewy [Breanna Stewart]. We thought her length would be good enough -– plus, we didn’t let her get as open as some of the other teams that she’s played against in the last three weeks.”
The plan worked to perfection. Five Connecticut players finished in double figures; only Hammond broke the 10-point threshold for Louisville.
One of the huge differences in this game came from beyond the arc. A rain of three-pointers had carried the Cardinals to the championship game, but tonight, at least in the early going, neither team was in any danger of shooting the lights out. The Huskies missed five of their first six three-point attempts, and the Cardinals were faring little better, landing only one of their first five. Both teams improved as the game wore on, but in Connecticut’s case, the progress was exponential, while in Louisville’s, it was incremental. UConn finished the night having netted 13 of its 26 (50 percent) attempts from downtown; Louisville knocked down just five of its 23 (21.7 percent) long balls.
“They defended well. They chased Shoni [Schimmel] and Antonita [Slaughter] and did a really nice job of pushing them off the three-point line,” Walz explained afterward. “We ended up going five for 23 from the three-point line. And that’s normally not what we do. We’ve been a much better three-point-shooting team, especially the past three weeks, than we were tonight. And I knew coming into this game we were going to have to make some threes. We just don’t have the post depth right now with all the injuries that we have to be able to pound the ball down low.”
Connecticut’s ability to nail the three-ball also proved crucial as Louisville tried to claw back into the game in the second half. Out of the locker room, Hammond again struck the first blow, knocking down a jump shot just 30 seconds into the second half. Faris answered with back-to-back treys, both coming on assists from Stefanie Dolson. A little less than five minutes later, with the Huskies’ lead now up to 22 (60-38), Reid drained a three on a feed from Hammond. On the next UConn possession, Slaughter swiped a steal from Morgan Tuck, and Reid dished to Jude Schimmel who knocked down Louisville’s second straight three in under a minute.
This time it was Stewart who answered for UConn, taking the assist from Faris and netting a three from well beyond the arc. From there, the wind seemed to go out of Louisville’s sails. The Cardinals continued to fight until the final buzzer sounded, but unable to gain any traction, they watched Connecticut’s lead balloon to a peak of 35 points with nearly six minutes still to go.
“They just made big shot after big shot,” said Walz. “Starting the second half, we come out, we score. Then Faris hits a three. We come back down the floor and score again. Faris hits another three. Then we hit back-to-back threes and get [the lead down to] 16. And Stewart comes out and hits about a 23-footer. And it’s just a big-time shot.
“[A]t that point in time, I was like, ‘If we can get one more stop and get down and score, all of a sudden it kind of makes the game a little more interesting.’ But unfortunately, we were never able to get it to where a shot actually started to matter. And what I mean by that is, when you’re up 15, 16, that rim looks really big. You get it to 10, you get it to eight, and all of a sudden, there’s a little bit more pressure on you. And we could just never get over that hump and get it to that.”
So the cynic would tell you that the magic ran out on Louisville as the storm clouds gathered over the New Orleans Arena on this night, and that UConn’s lopsided victory proves that talent and experience will win out in the long run over big dreams and inspiration every time.
The cynic, I think, would be wrong. If one of the reasons we love and follow sports is for the way it lifts the human spirit and inspires us to rise above ourselves, then the magic is there after tonight’s loss every bit as much as it was after the Cardinals’ win over Baylor. The magic lives on in the imaginations of a group of players who are already dreaming big about next season, mapping out what they need to do over the summer to come back to this stage and take home the hardware next year. It lives in the leadership of a coach who at one and the same time is teaching his team both to take pride in how far they have come and not to settle for second place. And it lives on in the hearts of the fans they took with them on their wild ride to greatness, fans like the two young Native American girls who stood in the stands holding a pair of signs sending love from the "Gray Wood Sisters to the Schimmel Sisters."
Louisville proved that the magic lives on when instead of tears, the locker room broke out in cheers minutes after the loss. Bria Smith explained the outburst: “It was just about knowing that we did work so hard to get here, and we actually achieved one of the goals that we wanted to get to in the beginning of the year. It was also for the seniors, Shelby Harper and Monique Reid, they worked their butts off the whole time they have been at Louisville, and just to see them go at this point, it feels good.
“We didn’t get to the point that we really wanted to be,” Smith continued, “but I just can’t get the words together about how proud I am of this team. Just from everyone down the line, everyone worked their butts off this past summer just to get to this point, so it feels great that we were able to accomplish one of the things that we wanted to.”
Player after player in the Louisville locker room would tell you that no one was hanging her head. Most expressed pride, not only in how far they had come, but also in the fact that notwithstanding the horsewhipping they were being handed by UConn, not a player on the team lost heart or quit fighting. Despite a tough night and a hard loss, Shoni Schimmel was upbeat. "[M]y teammates did a great job of doing what they needed to do, and that was score when they needed to. We just came up short, and you can’t really ask much of anything because we gave it all we had.
“I think it’s still us believing in the fact that we did make it this far,” Schimmel went on. “[W]e are losing two seniors. But, hey, everybody [else is] coming back, and so that’s bad for everybody else, because we did make this run at the end of the tournament, and it’s just going to continue into next season, and we’re just going to get better and grow as a team and learn from this and hopefully be back next year.”
Hammond, who rose to the occasion tonight when the team’s best scorers struggled, battling tooth-and-nail with Stewart in the paint and coming up with a team-high 15 points, five boards, two blocks and two steals, didn’t try to whitewash the thumping she and her teammates had just suffered. “We don’t celebrate moral victories,” she said. But she, too, took the positive approach, saying the loss just gave her greater incentive to hit the gym and work on her game over the summer. “If we do that, maybe next year it will be us out there cutting down the nets.”
It was Walz who set the emotional tempo for this team in terms of dreaming big and believing in infinite possibilities throughout this magical journey. “Why not us?” he asked rhetorically, when asked if his team had any chance of taking the title after they had knocked out Cal to get to tonight’s final. And it was Walz who put tonight’s setback in perspective: “We just didn’t quite have enough tonight. But it’s not because we didn’t compete. We did compete – and we competed for all 40 minutes. I’m proud of every single one of our players. It’s without a doubt going to go down as one of the greatest runs in women’s basketball.”
“To be a five-seed and knock off a four [Purdue, whom Louisville defeated on the Boilers’ home floor in the second round]. Then beat the No. 1 of all 1s in Baylor and then a 2 in Tennessee and then come back and beat Cal. I don’t think anybody can argue with that. You know, unfortunately, we just came up one game short. But I’m proud of my players. … And we’re going to hold our heads high and we’re going to be proud of what we did. … And I told these players this is something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and I was privileged to coach them and be part of it.”
And besides, as Walz has said repeatedly throughout this improbable trip through the postseason, in every game, he tells his players to go out, play hard and have fun. To savor the moment. To enjoy every bit of it.
Of course, it’s never fun to lose. But as Hammond sat listening to the celebration going on outside on the court, I asked her if she had had fun on this journey.
Hammond broke out in a smile that lit up the locker room. “I had a blast!” she answered. You could tell she was not alone in that sentiment.
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