LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Last week, the big story around the University of Louisville women's basketball team was that its coach was buying drinks for the whole arena.
This week, there's a new headline. The No. 5-ranked Cardinals are the toast of the Preseason NIT after beating No. 11 Oklahoma 97-92 in overtime in Norman, Okla., to win the WNIT championship.
The Cardinals have now won five of their past six against ranked opponents, including in back-to-back games in the past four days against LSU and Oklahoma.
The championship required a long trip, and not just through the stormy midwest. The Cardinals fell behind 17-2 in the title game, had three starters in early foul trouble, used 20 points off the bench from Tia Gibbs to take a lead into half, were down six with 1:20 to play, tied it up in regulation and held off a final Oklahoma rally to win in overtime.
They were whistled for 34 fouls and outscored 35-20 from the free-throw line. At one point in the second half, the free-throw disparity was 20-2. But their depth and resilience can't be questioned.
"You can't give a top ten team a 17-2 start, but I wasn't going to call time out," U of L coach Jeff Walz said to Matt Andrews on his postgame radio program by Nelligan Sports. "My staff was telling me to call timeout, if we got down 30-2 I wasn't going to call timeout. I just don't do it. When it comes down to big basketball games, if you want to be a special team, you've got to figure it out. And thank goodness, because we needed every, single one of those timeouts at the end. We gutted it out. The exciting thing to me."
Shoni Schimmel played only four minutes in the first half, and Bria Smith and Sara Hammond also were limited by fouls. Gibbs came in and provided scoring for the Cards, while Jude Schimmel came off the bench and provided leadership from the point guard spot. She wound up with six assists and three blocked shots. At one point in the first half, ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo Tweeted, "Who is this ridiculously confident guard making big plays with 'Schimmel' on her uniform? Oh yeah, it's Jude."
"We're very fortunate we're very deep," Walz said. "Jude did a great job for us, gave us a great spark in the first half when Bria had to sit with foul trouble. . . . Kids stepped up when the opportunities were there and did fantastic."
Sometimes, the game plan has to be scrapped. Walz says having a mature team that follows scouting is one of the Cards' greatest strengths.
"We aren't the quickest team, we aren't the tallest team. But the one thing our kids do is follow a game plan," Walz said after the LSU win. "I tell them all the time, `If you follow the game plan and we lose, it's my fault. But give me a chance to screw up. That's all I ask you.'"
But nobody plans to be down 17-2 early, nor to be without three starters in the first half. Still, by halftime, U of L was back up by six at half. The Cards led by as many as 11 in the second half, and then had to come back from six down in the final minute and a half. Walz said he was pleased his team remained composed at the end of regulation.
The Cards' outrebounded a taller Oklahoma team 50-40. Hammond finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds to take home tournament MVP honors. Asia Taylor had 10 points and 10 rebounds and also made the all-tourney team.
"There's not many teams out there, I don't think, that could have their two starting guards plus Sara Hammond sit with fouls," Walz said. "And we were able to put our bench in and play on against a team that's not a rinky-dink club. It's a top-ten basketball team. They're very talented, and we outrebounded them 50-40. Our problem is we've got to take care of the basketball."
The Cards had 25 turnovers, but forced 20, and held Oklahoma to 34.7 percent shooting. Five U of L players scored in double-figures, led by Gibbs who finished with 23. Shoni Schimmel had 16 and Smith 15.
After the game, a special scene played out in the arena when hundreds of Native Americans from nearby reservations came to meet the Schimmel sisters and the rest of the Cardinals.
Walz said that if his team keeps working, it won't be the last special thing to happen to it this season.
"We would have love to play at home," Walz said. "But this is just as special. . . . The last two minutes came down to getting defensive stops, and we got a little fortunate there. . . . I'm happy for our kids. I'm hoping we can learn from that win. . . . We've got some tough young ladies. They want to be great, and my job is to push them to be great."