LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The first time the University of Louisville women's basketball team ever played Rutgers, in 2006 as a new Big East member, it lost by 25 points. Rutgers and Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer were among the biggest names in women's basketball, were on their way to a 16-0 Big East Conference season, and were, it's fair to say, much what the Cardinals aspired to be.
U of L trailed at halftime of that game, 41-15. Rutgers sat two starters the entire second half. Its point guard, Cappie Pondexter, was on her way to being the No. 2 pick in the WNBA Draft.
It's useful to look back, from time to time, to more fully appreciate where the Cardinals are now. On Sunday, in a game where their offense wasn't really clicking, the No. 3-ranked Cardinals dispatched No. 25-ranked Rutgers 73-58 before a KFC Yum! Center crowd of 14,358, mostly clad in pink to honor those who have fought breast cancer.
This wasn't a bad Rutgers team. The Scarlet Knights had lost only five games coming in, and only one by double digits. Likewise, only one team all season had built a bigger halftime lead than U of L's eight-point margin at the break, which came despite Rutgers jumping to a 5-0 lead.
That one team, of course, is Connecticut. The Huskies beat Rutgers by 30. Connecticut hangs over the Cardinals now, as the one hurdle they've yet to clear. It's kind of like having only one mountain left to climb -- and that mountain being Everest. The mountain comes to the KFC Yum! Center next Monday. U of L already has sold more than 15,000 tickets for what promises to be an emotional Senior Day. The school's ticket office says it has sold tickets to fans from more than 38 states as part of a promotion honoring the Native American heritage of Shoni and Jude Schimmel.
The Cards opened a 20-point lead in the first 10 minutes of the second half, then Rutgers never got closer than 11 the rest of the way. U of L coach Jeff Walz surveyed Sunday's game, frowned as he saw the stat sheet, but the proclaimed satisfaction at the final result after being asked if it had been one of his team's best performances of the season.
"Yeah it sure is," Walz said. "There is no question about that. I was really pleased. We missed some shots we normally make. We had some wide-open looks that normally go down, especially from the three-point line. Antonita (Slaughter) for example -- we run that play to start the second half and she gets a wide-open shot that she normally knocks down. My thought is, I am really excited about this. I have Sara Hammond who goes 3-for-10 and that is not like her. You have Antonita who was 3-for-9 and 0-of-5 from the three-point line. That is not a normal night for her. Shoni goes 3-for-11 (from three-point range) and out of the eight misses four or five of them were really good looks that she is normally going to make. We still found a way to win by 15. I am pleased with that."
Eleven days prior, against Temple at home, the Cardinals had a similar shooting night. The stats broke down much the same, and the Cards won by only 10. The differences on this night was that their defense was much more active and alert -- forcing 17 Rutgers turnovers for a 23-4 edge in points off turnovers -- while staying out on the Knights' shooters.
The Cards generated offense from their defense, and they got sensational play from senior Asia Taylor, who has saved her best for last. She has become more than just a reliable starter. She has become a go-to player in her own right. She had 25 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Cards in both categories, while Hammond managed 12 points to go with her 11 rebounds despite a frustrating shooting day.
"I'm a driver, if that's not everyone's scouting report on me, but the fact I've been working on my jump shot and it's been falling, people have to play me honest," Taylor said. "A shot fake or head fake here or there, I know I can get by anybody. Coach has been working with me on finding open teammates, that's why I got those three assists. I was just trying to be aggressive. I think that aggressiveness early is what helped me late in the game as far as still trying to attack."
Taylor missed all of last season after surgery to repair a torn labrum in her left hip. That came after all the rehabilitation from her broken leg. Such injuries take a toll on any player's athleticism, but Taylor has felt better as the season has gone on, and is settling into new ways of hurting opponents. Hammond said her addition has made a big difference in the post.
"Last year when she didn't get to play with us, that hurt us, especially in the post," Hammond said. ". . . But now we have Asia. Because teams are really hugging on Shoni, that gives Asia so much space to drive and use her athleticism to get to the rim. She's probably the most athletic, overall versatile player we have on our team and without her, we wouldn't have had a big win like we did today."
U of L, which improved to 27-2, 15-1 in the American Athletic Conference, and matched a school-record with its 17 straight home-court win, will visit Cincinnati on Saturday before finishing its regular season at home against UConn two days later. If the Cards can advance to the Sweet 16, they'll be playing at home in the KFC Yum! Center for a chance to go back to the Final Four.
But Walz isn't looking that far ahead. Though he is starting to sound some similar themes to those he used last season.
"I keep telling them what I told them when we made our run last year," Walz said. "I don't need anyone to play great. I need the five people that are on the floor to play good. It doesn't matter when a sub comes in. I need them to play good. I don't need them to play outstanding. I thought tonight we played good. It was 15 assists on 26 made field goals and only turning the ball over nine times. We shoot 73 percent from the free-throw line. That is what we have to do if we are going to win basketball games."