CRAWFORD | With Elite Eight at home, Louisville women deserve a big sendoff
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I need to have a talk with the Louisville people for a minute. After the University of Louisville women's basketball team beat LSU to reach the Elite Eight, its players and coaches thanked the hometown crowd for giving them a lift.
It was a gracious thing to say. The 11,097 was probably one of the larger Sweet 16 crowds of the season.
"They were great," U of L senior Shoni Schimmel said.
Cardinals' coach Jeff Walz said, "What an environment we had here for both games."
But you know what my thought was as I sat there and watched? I'll tell you. "Where is everybody else?"
A crowd of 11,000 meant that there were 11,000 empty seats. And I'll go ahead and say it. If there are empty seats when the Cardinals face Maryland on Tuesday night at 7 for a berth in the Final Four, then this may not be the basketball town I've known it to be.
I'll cut U of L fans some slack on Sunday. Saturday was a late night for everybody. And even for those who didn't go to Indianapolis, maybe there was a hangover after the emotional loss on Sunday to the University of Kentucky.
You know who wasn't hung over?
Cardinals' guard Russ Smith. He was right there, sitting in the end zone. If Russ Smith can make it the day after his college career ended in the NCAA Sweet 16, there aren't many basketball fans in Louisville who can't make it.
I know, people are busy. You know who else is busy? U of L football coach Bobby Petrino.
He's in the middle of Spring Football. But he was right there, behind the bench.
In reality, this is the true Senior Day for the U of L women's basketball team. They had a stirring and emotional sendoff before their final home game against UConn, then lost by 20. Now, they have a chance to re-write that ending. But it's going to be a difficult game. Maryland is bigger than U of L. It has an All-American, just as the Cardinals do.
Walz is hoping for a much bigger crowd than the 11,000 and change who showed up Sunday.
"Hopefully we can get 13,000 or 14,000 to come out and see a great women's basketball game," Walz said. "That's what it's all about, two great teams playing for the opportunity to play in a Final Four."
U of L players were a little optimistic. Senior Antonita Slaughter mentioned 20,000.
Her number is the one that ought to be closer to reality.
This program has done some historic things in a short time. It's working on back-to-back Final Four trips when not too long ago a single Final Four trip seemed unthinkable. There are those of us who aren't TOO old who remember going to Louisville women's games in high school gymnasiums.
"It was an ambitious thing for our administration to go out and bid on this regional," Schimmel said. "It was an expensive thing for them to do. But it shows the faith they had in us. But we still have to go out and play the game. We can't take anything for granted. It's a great opportunity for us, to play for a Final Four on our home court. Not many people get the chance to do that. But we've got to play a great team, and we've got to go out and execute and play maybe our best game of the entire season."
All season, the players have done their part. They're 33-4 heading into this game. The seniors in this program have taken it to a new level. Shoni Schimmel and her sister Jude have provided the university exposure to an entire new population. Shoni has represented U of L in international play and on White House panels.
On a recent HBO Real Sports feature on the Schimmel sisters, you got a good view of how the name of the university, city and program have spread beyond the state's borders into remote areas in states around the nation, "Louisville" T-shirts on reservations in far flung places. I witnessed it myself when thousands of fans stood in line for several hours, the last coming through the line at 1 a.m., just for an autograph from the team.
One thing that has happened over the past couple of years in Louisville basketball, men's and women's, is that there has not just been success on the court, but relationships forged over time.
Fans got to know Peyton Siva and his story, and his father, or Luke Hancock and his heartbreak, or Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng. With the women's team, there's been Asia Taylor and her struggles with injury, or Antonita Slaughter and her scare earlier this season, passing out on the sideline, or the Schimmel sisters and their stories.
When the men's team lost, there was depression among its fan base, but beneath that fan disappointment, there was still the relationship that had been built, the pride in the stories.
The men's team is gone. But now, the women's team has the floor. The program deserves this spotlight. And it deserves a big sendoff.
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