CRAWFORD | Louisville women fall in Elite Eight, but leave a winning legacy
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The shot didn't go in. Shoni Schimmel let it go from the right wing. The play unfolded perfectly, in just 3.5 seconds. The inbounds pass. Asia Taylor getting it at the top of the key. Swing it to Shoni. The pull-up, wide open for the tie.
It was perfect. Except it wasn't. The shot bounced off. The University of Louisville women lost 76-73 before a crowd of 14,002 in the KFC Yum! Center, ending their season in the Elite Eight, Maryland, instead, advancing to the Final Four.
As crushed as the Cardinals were with the loss, Schimmel's first reaction was a smile. The play had been so perfect. The comeback had been one for the ages. From 12 down with two minutes to play. They were 10 down with a minute left.
"Who comes back from that?" Schimmel said afterward.
Even Cardinals coach Jeff Walz, for just a moment, smiled in appreciation of the comeback, and the execution in those final seconds. Everything cooperated but fate.
This wasn't Louisville's night. The Cardinals missed 10 layups, according to the final stat sheet. There were other problems. There were missed calls. There was a free-throw discrepancy. But when you miss 10 layups, you can bash anyone you want, in the end, you only blame yourself.
That's all Walz would do. The Cards missed layups. They didn't get scoring from some usual sources. Their bench, which had outscored three NCAA Tournament opponents 84-2 coming in, was outscored 16-14. They went ice cold during a 20-4 Maryland run midway through the second half.
And then they nearly won anyway.
"It was my last shot, and it just happened to be the one that didn't go," Schimmel said after the game, then her voice broke. "It sucks, but -- "
She teared up, and Walz put his arm around her and said, "Amen."
Schimmel composed herself and said, "What can you do about it?"
You hurt for a while, but eventually, you smile. That's what you do. Walz and his players knew even as the crowd applauded them walking off the court, they'd missed a golden opportunity, on their home court. Their whole season had been played under the theme of "Unfinished Business." It remained unfinished, a final record of 33-5. But what can you do about it?
"Our kids, I'm so proud of them," Walz said. "They played so hard. We never gave up, and they know it. We give credit to Maryland. It's a great win for them. But when we sat down in the locker room, we were proud of our fight, but we knew we had an opportunity here tonight, and we let it slip by, especially with missing as many lay‑ups as we did."
When the shots don't fall, when you fall short of the mark, what can you do about it? It's been a rough week for Louisville, and not just for women's basketball.
But here's what Louisville has been fortunate to develop. It has built these relationships with players it won't soon forget, with Teddy Bridgewater, or Russ Smith, or with these women's players.
Senior Antonita Slaughter thought in December she'd never play again. Instead, the product of Louisville's Christian Academy and hero of so many moments in last season's NCAA Tournament was as good as she's ever been, driving for difficult baskets, making a couple of three-pointers, finishing with 14 points. After she passed out on the bench during a game, unconscious in a moment that Walz and Louisville players said was the scariest they'd ever encountered on a basketball court, just playing the game was a gift.
Want some perspective? Make the last shot, miss the last shot, listen to Slaughter.
"It's meant everything," she said. "It's just a blessing, first of all just for my health, and then just playing with these guys. You know, they're great teammates but they're great people off the court, as well. Like we said in the locker room we're going to all keep in touch. These four years at Louisville have meant a lot."
Senior Tia Gibbs had three-pointers she has made the whole tournament rim out. It happens. I saw her walking out of the arena after the game, her family around her. She once said in her university bio that she wants to be the CEO of Nike. While playing basketball for the Cardinals, she not only earned her bachelor's degree but is finishing her MBA.
Senior Asia Taylor battled through injuries, sat out all last season, in fact. She came in with great promise, and only this season started to get back to her old self, and became one of the team's most reliable players. Like the others, her first words after the game weren't of the loss, but of the ride.
"I've got just to say thank you to Coach Walz," Taylor said. "He believed in me when I was in high school and stuff. We've had our ups and downs. I know there's a lot of times he could have given up on me, he didn't, and he just kept pushing me. I'm a better player because of it. Off the court I'm going to be a successful person because he's pushed me. Shoni and Nita and Tia, it's been amazing playing with them. I'm just going to miss them. I'm going to miss their faces and smiling and dancing and everything. It's been amazing, and the fans, as well. I'm never going to forget this."
Are you sensing a theme? These players talked about disappointment, but still their focus seemed to go to each other, and something beyond the court. And then there's Shoni Schimmel.
What can you do about it?
You can put her banner up beside Angel McCoughtry's in the KFC Yum! Center. Her business as a U of L player is finished, but she is far from finished. She'll be lighting up WNBA arenas soon enough.
What she has done for U of L women's basketball, along with her sister Jude, transcended the game. Walz began to realize that when Native Americans started showing up at their road games, when he had to delay departures so they could sign autographs after games -- away from home.
Summer Cummings rode 17 hours with 37 school kids on a bus to watch the Schimmels play on Senior Night in Louisville. HBO's Real Sports asked her what the Schimmels meant to reservation kids in America.
"Hope," she said. "Hope. That's the biggest thing to me. Motivation, somewhat, but hope."
It's nice to win. There's been a lot of winning around here lately. But nobody wins them all. And if the scorecard only reflects wins and losses, in the end, what is it worth? They can't be all that counts.
Jude Schimmel told HBO she wants to be writer. She's probably already learned that there's as much to be gained from the losses as the wins. They're not as fun, but they can teach us as much. She, along with Sara Hammond, Bria Smith and many others will start a new chapter at U of L next season.
Walz was asked what Shoni Schimmel's time at U of L has meant.
"She's going to go down as ‑‑ her and Angel are the two best players as of right now that have played here," Walz said. "She took us to a Final Four, to a national championship game, and it's unfortunate that it had to end tonight the way it did, but she's meant a lot to not just our program but the city, the fan support, the amount of people. It's not just us. When we go on road games, the amount of natives that come out and her and Jude have inspired, it's been a remarkable story all season long. When you sit there after games and you're signing autographs when you're at Memphis out by the bus for an hour after the game, you know, all of our players are, and they're coming up in busloads from Mississippi because that's the closest game that we played.
"It comes down to the game of basketball, it's wins and losses. There's no question about it. That's what we're here to do. But this year for our program it's been a lot more than just that, just seeing how our players have been able to inspire so many, it's been a wonderful experience."
And it's how, in the end, you can miss your final shot, but still walk out of the arena a winner.
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