LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Last year, they were crashing the party. This year, the University of Louisville women's basketball team is hosting it. At least, for one more game.
The Cardinals had their Senior Night, a moving farewell attended by thousands of native Americans from all over the United States, but also a 72-52 loss to undefeated Connecticut on March 1.
On Tuesday, they get a do-over. The earned their way to the NCAA Elite Eight by pounding short-handed LSU 73-47, even with leading scorer Shoni Schimmel and several other starters watching the final 10 minutes from the bench.
The Cards' third straight NCAA Tournament rout earns them a matchup against Maryland, the program they beat to reach the Final Four in 2009, and the team that knocked them from the tournament in 2012, at the KFC Yum! Center in a 7 p.m. tipoff. A win would give the program its first back-to-back Final Four appearances, after it fell in a Cinderella run to the NCAA title game a year ago.
After Sunday's game, in the Louisville locker room, there were lots of numbers written on the white board. But the one that stood out to the players was not one Coach Jeff Walz had written down, but one he told them: In three NCAA Tournament games, the Cardinals' bench has outscored their opponents' bench players 84-2.
"We're very fortunate to have some bench players and some other players that are stepping up to take more responsibility," Walz said.
That's an understatement.
On Tuesday, senior Tia Gibbs entered the game to make 5 of 8 three-pointers and score 15 points in 16 minutes. Last week at Iowa, Jude Schimmel came off the bench for 10 points, three steals and two assists. On Sunday, she had five points, five assists and three steals. Against LSU, the Cards ranked up a 28-0 margin in bench scoring, and 36-3 from behind the three-point arc.
After winning a series of thrilling upsets on their way to last season's Final Four, the Cardinals have been on cruise control in this tournament, winning three NCAA Tournament games by an average of 34 points.
"I think we're playing really good basketball right now," Walz said. "Did we look to me exceptionally sharp in the first half in the half‑court? No. I thought LSU really did good things in trying to confuse us some, trying to make things a little unorthodox. But I thought we really did a nice job of just attacking out of transition."
The Cards have benefited from an especially focused Shoni Schimmel. She carved Iowa apart with drives and mid-range jumpers, and had 19 points and six assists against LSU.
"She always figures out a way to play her best basketball at the right time of the season," Walz said. "I think you can go back to her freshman year. We went on the road at Xavier, a 2‑7 game in the second round where we weren't given much of a chance. I can still remember she hit back‑to‑back threes in the last two minutes of the game on shots that most kids probably aren't going to take. It's a one‑on‑four fast break, and she's the one. That's kind of how she plays. Now I think, as she's gone and gotten older and more mature, she's letting the game come to her more. I was really impressed. She goes 6 of 13 from the field. They were doing a really nice job trying to face guard her, trying to frustrate her, and she didn't force thing. She let the game come to her. She did not force any threes, six assists, two turnovers, just a solid basketball game, and she's been playing that way the entire tournament. So hopefully, that will continue."
Not everything is clicking, even amid the blowouts. Sara Hammond is in the midst of an offensive slump. Antonita Slaughter, who has been red-hot from three-point range in NCAA Tournament play, was 2-9 Sunday.
"We're at the point now where if someone has foul trouble or if someone is struggling, we have the depth that someone is going to get into the game and pick them up," Hammond said. "A lot of teams at this time of season are playing five, six, seven players. We're fortunate to be able to go nine deep, maybe more. Right now everybody that comes into the game is making a contribution."
It's a team that appears to have gotten more focused after blowing through a series of American Athletic Conference blowouts with varying degrees of efficiency. Now, Walz said, the opportunity to play for a Final Four berth, on their home-court no less, has his players' full attention.
"I've had a lot of people say, well, why couldn't you guard like this all year? Why couldn't you guard ‑‑ because we can't," Walz said. "For six games, they let me coach them. I mean, they let me, when they don't do it right at practice, boy, I'm on them. I'm demanding it from them, and you can't do that the entire season. It's not what they're going to be able to handle. So we go play some people, and we're up 25, and instead of putting the hammer down and winning by 40, we give up a 7‑0 run. So now it's eight with two minutes left. Well, I tell my assistants all the time, relax, we're going to win, it's okay.
"So there's time and places when you can push your players to try to get the most out of them, and because we've had success here in the postseason, and I think we've done fairly well, my kids know, okay, the conference tournament's over. Coach is going on his mission, stay out of his way, and they let me do it because they want to win. They know what the prize is at the end. Does it guarantee we're going to win every game? No, it sure doesn't. If that was the case, we'd have two National Championships here, but they go into it with such more focus."
Maryland will be more of a challenge. The Terrapins finished the season ranked No. 11 nationally but rose as high as No. 6 during the season. Walz was an assistant coach there in an NCAA championship season. The Terrapins had little trouble in a 73-62 win over No. 1 seed Tennessee. They played No. 2-ranked Notre Dame to a five-point loss during the regular season and bring a 27-6 record into the game. Alyssa Thomas, a 6-2 senior, has 27 double-doubles and scored a career-high 33 in their win over Tennessee.
"They're a very talented basketball team," Walz said. "They've got great size. Alyssa Thomas has been playing passionate basketball. She's on a mission to get her team to a Final Four. So we know what's at stake. We understand what we're going to have to do. Now it's a matter of us being able to put a game plan together to try to slow them up."
The Cardinals played in front of a crowd of 11,097, and Walz said he's hoping for a bigger crowd in Tuesday night's game.
For Schimmel, Gibbs, Asia Taylor and Slaughter, it's a true Senior Night.
"I've thought about that a lot," Taylor said. "I've pictured winning that game in my mind, to go to the Final Four. It doesn't get much bigger than that. But you just have to focus on your opponent."
Shoni Schimmel said: "You don't assume anything, don't take anything for granted. Maryland is going to come into this game to win it. We're going to have to play a great game. A win would be as great a last home game as you could ask for, and then we could take the party with us on down to Nashville."
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