LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I don't know if the University of Louisville women's basketball team will make it to the Final Four. I don't know if they can win a national title. But I do know this.
U of L athletic director Tom Jurich needs to spring for some jewelry.
Championship or not, the U of L women have authored this season's One Shining Moment in women's basketball. They already have pocketed the most memorable win of this tournament. Years from now, people may or may not be able to recall who won the 2013 title. But they'll be able to tell you who won Brittney Griner's last game.
They'll remember U of L's 82-81 victory. They'll remember Shoni Schimmel's shot. They'll remember Kevin Durant showing up in the locker room.
It wasn't an NCAA championship. But I'm telling you right now, from a standpoint of national sports landscape and place in the sport's history, that game was bigger than a national championship. If Indiana could give its team rings for getting to the Sweet 16 a year ago, nobody should begrudge U of L's women for putting a ring on this one.
The knock on women's basketball is that the power programs are so dominant that building to their level is nearly impossible. It's four No. 1 seeds, and everybody else seems like a No. 16.
U of L has fought those battles. It plays in a conference with UConn. It faces Goliath every season. And when it isn't Connecticut, it's Notre Dame.
Griner, at 6-8, is one of the most dominant women ever to play the college game. Baylor, the defending national champion, had won 32 straight games under her leadership. It went 40-0 last season. It had won 74 out of 75 games.
The Final Four this season was shaping up to be a coronation of her dominance. No telling how many produced pieces on her ESPN had to kill when the Cardinals felled the Bears.
And more than the accomplishment, the way U of L accomplished it should be remembered. The absolute abandon and lack of fear. This is the essence of basketball -- the whole being greater than the parts.
At the head of it was Jeff Walz. Is he crazy? Well, maybe. Does he pick up a technical in the closing minutes with his lead dwindling? If he feels like it, yes. Is he one of the few coaches that the NCAA ever has sanctioned for strong language on the sidelines? Well, now that you mention it, yes. And his reaction? "I've said worse."
But what he said to his players before that game ought to be remembered. He told them, what the heck, let's try to win. Let's shoot the lights out. I don't care. Don't worry about it. Just go. Just see what happens. And what do you know? His team went out and shot the lights out. The Cards made their first seven three-pointers and 10 of their first 15.
After Sara Hammond made a step-back three over Griner, the look on Walz's face should be still-framed and hung up somewhere. It was utter joy and laughter. The game still had a long way to go. But when she made that move, he couldn't contain it. He was in the moment.
"In order to pull this off, first of all, you have to have a great leader," Hammond said. "We all look to coach Walz as our leader, and he's been there, he's been in that position, and we have 100 percent trust and 100 percent confidence in what he's doing. And some people might think he's crazy when they see him on the sidelines, but that's Coach, and we go with it, and he gets us hyped and he has the perfect game plan. I know a lot of teams, they just stick to what they're used to and what their comfort zone is. He gets us out of our comfort zone and challenges us to go beyond what we think we can do, and it's worked tremendous for us this year. You've just got to give him, I mean, 100 percent -- I mean, I don't even have words for the game plan that he put together. We didn't -- honestly I don't think we believed in ourselves that we could do it, but just the confidence and the belief that he had in us, I mean, you saw it last night how hyped we got. He's a great leader, and we just follow with what he gives us."
It wasn't just the belief. It was the swagger. It was the in-your-face defiance of dominance. It was the refusal to resign themselves to expected defeat. You'd probably rather not have your players talking trash. You'd probably rather not have them brash, belligerent and in the faces of their opponents. But it's also possible that, maybe, that was the only way U of L was going to win. In the face of overwhelming odds, sometimes you need overwhelming emotion.
There was the shot. Shoni Schimmel on the break, driving at Griner, behind the back, through the legs, making contact, back to the basket, over the shoulder, into the hoop, then jawing at Griner in case she hadn't noticed what had just happened.
"It was the best shot of the NCAA Tournament," Jay Bilas said.
But it wasn't the toughest. With 2.6 left and U of L down by one, Monique Reid came to the free throw line. Reid is the last remaining U of L player who played in the 2009 Final Four. She has battled serious knee injuries, missed all of last season, missed eight games this season, couldn't really practice full-speed, battled issues with it all year. She's probably the toughest player on the team. And you will find no free throws more pressure-packed than those, not just with the game on the line, but with a win that some would call the greatest upset in women's college basketball on the line. The pressure of having lost the lead and trying to get it back, of beating Griner, of your college career coming to a close.
Stand up Fern Creek. Reid toed the line and made them both.
Before the game, the women's team sat in the locker room and watched U of L's men. They knew Kevin Ware went down. Walz said he talked to his team about it.
"I told our kids before the game, I said, You know what, it's a basketball game," he said. "Even for us tonight, I mean, I'm not sure where this stands on victories in women's college basketball, but I'll have to say it's kind of high up there. At the end of the day, it's a basketball game. Both teams come out here and compete and give it everything you have. We're watching our men play, and Kevin has an injury that obviously he's out for the year. Who knows how bad it is. I just told them, I said, Go out there and give it everything you've got. But at the end of the day it's a basketball game."
Yes, but it was a big one. In a couple of hours, U of L's women will play another big one, for a chance to go to the Final Four. They might win, they might not. I wanted this column on the record before the ball was ever tipped. Women's college basketball has had its One Shining Moment this season, and the Louisville Cardinals sparked it.
Call the jewelers. Put it on a ring. And make sure it shines.
Wednesday, March 5 2014 8:53 AM EST2014-03-05 13:53:25 GMT
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