In a game that witnessed several wide swings on the scoreboard, the No. 5/4 Louisville Cardinals came back from a 15-point first-half deficit to claim their first Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament title in overtime Sunday, besting the No. 11/13 Oklahoma in overtime, 95-92, at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla.
Louisville’s Sara Hammond was named tournament MVP. She was joined on the All-Tournament Team by teammate Asia Taylor, as well as Oklahoma’s Aaryn Ellenberg (who took home Big 12 Player of the Week honors Monday) and Sharane Campbell. Gonzaga’s Haiden Palmer and LSU’s Theresa Plaisance, whose teams fell in the semifinals, rounded out the All-Tournament selections.
In Sunday’s championship game, the Sooners came out on fire, holding the visitors scoreless for the game’s first five minutes and running up a 17-2 lead in the first six. Louisville’s only points in that span came at the penalty stripe, with the Cardinals came up empty from the floor until Antonita Slaughter netted a three-pointer at the 13:24 mark for Louisville’s first field goal.
Tia Gibbs, the redshirt senior guard who came off the bench to turn this game around for the Cardinals, shaved the OU lead to single digits on Louisville’s next possession, and though a pair of Morgan Hook penalty shots and an Ellenberg triple quickly put the Sooners back on top by 13, from there, the game was on.
Jude Schimmel’s layup with 6:46 to go in the first period ignited a 13-2 Louisville run that carved the gap to a single point over the next two minutes, and though Ellenberg answered, briefly restoring a bit of separation, back-to-back three-pointers from Gibbs gave the Cardinals their first lead of the game (40-39) with two-and-a-half minutes to go before the break. It was also Gibbs who knocked down the final points of the half, to send the teams to the locker room with Louisville up five, 48-43.
Of Louisville’s first-half points, 31 had come from its bench, which outscored the Sooner relievers by 17 points, with Gibbs (20) carrying the laboring oar.
“I thought we just kept our composure and kept digging away and digging away,” said Louisville head coach Jeff Walz afterward. “Finally I thought we were back in there. My goal was to be down 10 at half. That's what I told them at the under-12 timeout when we were down 15. That was our goal to get it to 10 going into half then we'll regroup. Next thing, I know Tia Gibbs -- she's done that before… she just comes out and starts shooting really well. We go into halftime up five.”
The second half was nearly a mirror image of the first, with Louisville starting off strong, running its lead up to a peak of 12 (70-58) over the first 11 minutes and change, and holding the Sooners scoreless from the field for seven-and-a-half minutes of that span.
But Campbell’s traditional three-point play with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation once again shifted the game’s momentum, igniting a 9-0 Sooner run over the next two minutes that whittled the visitors’ lead to two (70-68).
Shoni Schimmel answered with a trey, but a series of fouls, including a technical charged to Gibbs, put the Sooners at the line, where they netted three-out-of-four, and Campbell’s jumper with 3:33 remaining knotted the score at 73 apiece.
From there, the game turned into a real dogfight, in perhaps one of the most exciting Top-25 meetings of the early season. Shoni Schimmel and Oklahoma’s Gioya Carter traded three-pointers, and Ellenberg knocked down another long ball to put OU up by four (81-77). Campbell tacked on two free throws to give the home team a six-point lead (83-77) with a minute-and-a-half to go.
Shoni Schimmel, who had struggled to find her shot in the early going, came up big when her team needed her most, nailing a jumper and following it up with one from the charity stripe. Carter turned the ball over, and Hook fouled Hammond who made both at the line, to make it a one-point ball game (83-82) as the game entered its final minute of regulation play.
Ellenberg nailed a jumper to put OU up by three (85-82) with 27 ticks on the clock. Jude Schimmel went coast to coast for a fast-break layup seconds later, but that still left the Cardinals a point short. Gibbs quickly fouled to stop the clock, sending Carter to the line. The freshman knocked down only one of the pair, opening the door for Jude Schimmel to race back down the floor and knock down another fast-break layup, with 13 seconds left, tying the score at 86 and sending the game to overtime.
“Shoni comes up with a big and-one, which was very crucial for us,” said Walz. “With about 1:20 left, I told Jude, `We've got to just attack. They're not going to want to foul. Don't foul them, just drive it.' And she drives it and she gets back-to back layups for us. Then it was tied. I'm not sure our kids knew it was tied because we were about to foul when the ball was thrown inbounds. Thank goodness we didn't. Then, at the end, of regulation, I think we thought we were up 1 because we dribbled around in the backcourt.”
“We had a travel called and they got to the rim, Jude Schimmel got to the rim so fast,” recalled Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale after the game. “I thought it was her layup before the layup that tied us that really hurt us. If we could have just forced them into using 10, 12, 15 seconds off the shot clock it’s ours. We own the game. Because she went so fast, it allowed them an extra possession. That hurt us. Her drive happened against two people. You can go back in a game like that and wonder if we should have switched our matchups, should we have done this, should we have done that. They just made some big plays. They really did. We missed some opportunities to capitalize.”
The Sooners struck first in the extra minutes, retaking the lead on a free throw by Nicole Griffin. But an Ellenberg trey with 35 seconds left would be the Sooners’ only field goal in overtime, with Hook adding two points more from the charity stripe. Meanwhile, the Cardinals took control, as Antonita Slaughter struck from downtown and Sara Hammond and both Schimmel sisters dropped in layups.
The Sooners had several good looks at potentially game-changing three-pointers in the final minute-and-10 seconds of overtime, but of the five attempts, only Ellenberg’s trey would fall. Louisville’s Asia Taylor hit two foul shots in the final seconds to round out the scoring, and give the Cardinals the preseason WNIT title in front of a crowd of 7,358 disappointed, but nonetheless enthusiastic, Sooner fans.
Gibbs, whose hot hand seemed to go cold in the second half, finished with a game-high 23 points on eight-of-12 shooting, including four-of-seven from long range, to go with nine rebounds and two steals (but three turnovers) before fouling out late in overtime. Gibbs led five Cardinals in double digits, including Shoni Schimmel, who overcame a rough day at the office in the first half to end with 16 points (but on six-of-16 from the field and just three-of-11 from beyond the arc); Slaughter added 15, plus six boards; Hammond contributed 13 with game-best efficiency (five-of-six from the field, three-for-three from the line), and seven boards; and Taylor added a 10/10 double-double.
Ellenberg led the way for the Sooners with 22 points, but also struggled with her shot, shooting seven-of-21 from the field and three-for-10 from the arc. She added 12 rebounds to make it a double-double, plus two assists and a steal, which she gave back in turnovers (six). Campbell added 19 points, and despite subpar field-goal shooting (five-of-15 from the field, zero-for-five from the arc) was a near-perfect nine-of-10 at the line, as was Hook, who contributed 16 points. Carter added 12 and Kaylon Williams tacked on 10.
Louisville’s rebounding (50-40) kept them in the ball game during shooting droughts. Both sides struggled with turnovers, with OU coming up better in that department with 20 miscues to the Cardinals’ 24.
Both teams also struggled with foul trouble, which appeared to flow largely from the NCAA’s new hand-check rules and enforcement emphasis. Designed to open up the offensive flow of the game, thereby enticing new fans, by protecting the shooter and ball handler, these measures instead have been seeing a disproportionate quantum of time spent at the free-throw line. Two players from each team fouled out of the game; Louisville had four others with four fouls apiece; Oklahoma three. In total, OU paid 41 visits to the line where they garnered 35 of their points (38 percent of its total scoring production). Louisville got to the charity stripe 27 times for 20 points (21.7 percent of the Cardinals’ total scoring). Query whether this kind of parade to free-throw line is what the NCAA had in mind when they changed the rules and established new points of emphasis in this year’s officiating?
While some coaches favor the new rules, suggesting that players will adjust in time, Walz voiced some frustration with the more offense-protective officiating. "It's hard because then you're telling your kids not to play hard,” he stated. Describing a play that saw Cardinals starter Bria Smith foul out with 1:29 left in regulation and the game hanging in the balance, he continued, “The way I look at it was it should've been Oklahoma's ball out of bounds. They both left their feet to go after it. She was there to pick it up, my kid took her feet out from under it. I told Bria Smith, the fouls you can't get any more are those cheap ones in the backcourt when someone gets the rebound and throws it to the outlet and you go try to steal it. That's a foul. They're going to get you for two or three, guarding the ball handler. You can't pick up those cheap ones. The other four that she picked up, I'm fine with. At one point, I think they'd shot 18 [free throws) to our two. It's definitely frustrating."
Coale felt the foul calls also hurt her squad, who, like Louisville, had a tough time getting its three-point game in gear. The Sooners shot 24.1 percent (seven-of-29) from the arc, to Louisville’s 31 percent (nine-of-29) for the game as a whole, but the Cardinals made just four of their 17 three-point attempts (23.5 percent) in the second half.
“Goodness gracious,” Coale exclaimed. “I think rhythm is a big part of making threes. There are so many stoppages in play that it’s hard to get a rhythm right now. That may take a while to get ironed out. It didn’t seem to affect Vegas (Aaryn Ellenberg). I thought she was the best player on the floor. She was just tremendous. Clutch shots, toughness. 12 rebounds. Just a really big night.” But Coale had Campbell, Williams and Nicole Griffin on the bench in foul trouble for much of the first half, and it was hard not to think about what might have been had she been able to keep them in the game. “It was about 12 minutes I think is what it was. I feel like it went forever,” said Coale. “That’s when you look back and if we can keep those guys in the game that might be a 25-point lead at halftime instead of being down. And, of course, they hit the big shot in the corner right at the end of the first half. When you look at the game again, that one goes in and that’s why we’re in overtime. You could trace it back to a million times.”
Still, Coale found reasons for optimism in how her team battled through the adversity. “That’ll be good for us later that we had to stay in the game and come back with those veteran guys on the bench. We’re going to have to get used to that obviously. We’re going to have to be able to do a lot of different combinations to be able to cover that. It was just tough for us because it was our two five-men in foul trouble. We had to play without a true center for a while against a big, athletic team.”
Louisville got to the final with wins over Loyola Chicago (101-54), Quinnipiac (100-82) and No. 14/16 LSU (88-67), behind double-digit scoring from five players in each game along the way. Oklahoma’s path to the title game went through Stetson (78-60), Wichita State (89-70) and Gonzaga (82-78).
- Huskers humble Bruins in opening day action
- Lessons learned: Take-aways from UConn's rout of Stanford
- Duke gets it done as experience pays dividends vs. Cal