NEW ORLEANS (WDRB) -- On a whiteboard in the University of Louisville women's basketball locker room after Sunday's 64-57 victory over California sent the Cardinals into the NCAA championship game, the word "Patience" was printed in an upper corner, smudged with fingerprints from coach Jeff Walz's halftime punctuations.
After victories this big, you want to look around, to preserve the scene. And this was big. U of L has sent both its men's and women's teams into this week's NCAA title games. The U of L women will face Connecticut for the championship Tuesday night. Stunning? Surreal? Pick your adjective. The word on the board, though, was "patience." It was a strange word for such heady times.
But if defense wins championships, it was patience that took the Louisville women to the championship game.
Through early expectations. Through losing three key players to injury. Through trial and error. Through lack of depth and abundance of adversity. And on Sunday, through a 10-point deficit and their worst half of the NCAA Tournament, Walz kept telling his players to be patient, to listen, to persevere.
Nobody persevered more than Monique Reid. In front of a locker, she sat with a large bag of ice wrapped around her knee. She has had microfracture surgery. She rarely practices. During the game against California, she hyperextended the knee and limped off.
It took about 60 seconds for the tears to come when asked what this program and playing in a second national championship game means to her.
"I'm pushing," she said. "I'm hurting every day. But I'm pushing through. I have so much love for this program."
Reid probably understands the meaning of getting into a national title game better than any other player in the locker room. She was a ball girl for the Cardinals long before they were among the national attendance leaders. She grew up wanting to do this, working for it at Fern Creek High, but never dreaming two title games could be a part of it. She was a freshman when the Cards did it in 2009. But this is different. In '09, the Cards had the overall No. 1 WNBA Draft pick, plus another pro in Candyce Bingham. That team lost to only one opponent all season -- Connecticut.
This team? Well, it required some patience. It had ups and downs. It had to figure things out. Walz said when the Cards lost a double-digit lead and fell to Kentucky, people were howling.
"The biggest problem in college athletics in my opinion is everybody lives in the moment. I mean, we lose to UK in December, you think the world's going to come to an end. It's just awful," Walz said. "And I'm like, hey, it's one game. That's the way I approach them all: It's one game. Now, once you get in the NCAA tournament, it's not one game because when you lose you're done. But back in December, it is what it is. They had an unbelievable year, UK did. I think they would be willing to say, hey, we'll trade. You can win that game and we'll come here and play for a national championship on Tuesday."
The team has, in the tournament, caught fire. Walz lit the match, somehow instilling a confidence in his players so strong that they pulled off perhaps the biggest tournament upset in women's basketball history, knocking off defending champion Baylor and Brittney Griner. They they chopped down perennial power Tennessee.
But that was supposed to have been enough. No team seeded No. 5 or worse has advanced to the women's basketball championship game. California was long and athletic, and imposed its will on U of L early in the game. It pummeled the Cardinals on the boards, 23-11. It dominated the paint, 24-10. At halftime, Cal led by 10, and the Cardinals filed into their locker room for what looked very much like their last halftime talk of the season.
The last time Walz was in this situation, he took the paint off of the walls. He told Angel McCoughtry and Co. that the only positive in the whole first half was that they'd played so badly that surely Oklahoma, which held a double-digit lead, had to believe there was no way it could lose.
In this locker room, however, Walz didn't explode, he explained. He told his team it needed to do a few things differently on defense. He told the players that they needed to be more patient on offense.
"That game plan?" he said. "It might be a good thing to use."
"We really didn't try and change a whole bunch," Walz said. "We did come out and play some man. But what happened was we finally started to get a little more patient at the offensive end. We came out, we executed our first play perfect. Shoni gets a three. We come down the floor, we run our second set, the second play. Bria Smith hits a jump shot. We really -- it was probably one of the poorest defensive efforts we've had in terms of following the scout and being mentally prepared. When we came out in the second half we were in man and I wanted to do a double on ball screen, and we never doubled in our ball screen one time the entire night. And that's the part that I kept telling them, you know, give me a chance to coach. Double the ball screen so I can at least see what's going to happen and then we can make an adjustment."
Offensively, Walz wanted movement, and not just from players. He wanted the ball in motion.
"What I told them was we've got to stop dribbling the ball," Walz said. "I mean, that's all we did was dribble dribble, dribble. I thought they were all trying to check the air. I'm like, guys, the officials did that before the game. You're okay."
At no point did Walz act in any way other than that he believed his team should be winning the game. In the second half, the Cardinals played like they were supposed to win it.
Certainly Antonita Slaughter played that way. Let's just say it's been a good couple of days for three-point shooters from Christian Academy in Louisville. A day after Tim Henderson's two big threes sparked the men's team to the national title game, Slaughter buried six of them -- for all of her team-high 18 points.
Behind Slaughter, the Cards chipped away at the lead. Sara Hammond, who had been saddled with foul trouble the entire game, drove for a layup and was fouled with 3:40 left. When she made the free throw, U of L, improbably, had a 53-52 lead. And it was California's turn to feel the pressure.
Cal's Layshia Clarendon hit a three with 1:57 left to tie the score at 57. But her team would not score again. Once it got the lead, "We felt like we had them," Slaughter said.
They aren't supposed to be doing this. Women's basketball has been no place for Cinderellas.
"It was so fast," Shoni Schimmel said. "We take the lead late and then it's over, and we're in the national championship game."
Schimmel had the electrifying play of the Final Four, a no-look behind-the-back pass to her sister, Jude, on a first-half fast-break. But she has been doing both the spectacular and the necessary in this tournament, sparking the Cardinals while also facilitating.
The Schimmels have had a remarkable run. When they upset Baylor, their parents got married to celebrate. It's going to be tough to figure out a way to celebrate if their daughters can manage one more win.
"I don't know," Shoni said. "Thing going around is tattoos."
The other thing going around? Confidence. "The way we see it," Jude Schimmel said, "if we beat Baylor, what can't we do?"
"Our philosophy right now is, 'Why not?'" Walz said. "We're going to have one more practice, then throw the ball up, and why not?"
For two weeks, I've had the same column ready to go on this team.
Its premise is simple: What a tough loss in (insert NCAA Tournament round here), but what a great game, what great effort and tenacity. The team won't be defined by (insert loss here), but by all it accomplished despite major injuries and adversity every step of the way.
It's a great column. I may not ever get to write it. The Cardinals keep winning.
They're in the NCAA championship game. Somehow. A team with no depth and little size.
When Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma passed Walz in the hallway on the way to his team's game against Notre Dame, he stopped, made a little bow and pretended to kiss Walz's hand.
"People talk about me," Auriemma said. "He's the cockiest guy I know."
Maybe he has a reason. Jude Schimmel, who scored nine points, was the only U of L player to score off the bench. Bria Smith had 17, Shoni Schimmel had 10. And somehow, they found a way to keep winning.
And U of L has not one, but two teams playing for NCAA championships this week. The commute continues. U of L athletic director Tom Jurich, before heading out of the arena and back to Atlanta, said, "It's a very, very special weekend, to say the least. I'm so proud of both our coaches and their players. It means so much to the university and to the community. I don't know what to say. I really don't. I'm speechless."
Smith said the women would watch the men's title game, that they've drawn inspiration from the story of injured player Kevin Ware. Hammond said that they're aware they're part of a bigger overall story. Sitting with some fans back in the team hotel after the game, Walz watched highlights from the win on ESPN, the sound on the television muted, and just smiled and shook his head.
"Everybody expected our men to do this," he said. "I don't think anyone expected we'd be here too."
U of L fans, its band, and school officials commuted to New Orleans from Atlanta for Sunday's game. Now, the commute continues.
"This is just amazing to be a part of," Hammond said. "This is history for us. This is a program-changer. Coach always says, we're not a team, we're a program. For our city, for our university, I'm proud to be a part of this, and to be a Kentucky girl, to keep it in state. . . . We've had so much adversity, it's made us tougher. We're party crashers, and we love it."