LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – There have been higher highs for the University of Louisville women’s basketball team, which in the last dozen years has provided a couple of trips to the NCAA championship game, the greatest upset in the history of women’s basketball and too many memorable moments to count, documented from HBO to ESPN and beyond.

But Sunday’s latest accomplishment for the program is as important as any of those milestones. Jeff Walz’s Cardinals won a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship, tying Notre Dame for the title and earning the top seed for this week’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

Against the backdrop of Final Fours or title games or beating Brittney Griner, that might not sound like much. But since Walz’s arrival in 200x, Louisville has done battle with Connecticut, Rutgers and Notre Dame for women’s basketball conference titles in various leagues. It was Mission Impossible for a program establishing itself.

You might score a big upset. You might beat one of those teams once in a while. But there are no short cuts to earning a piece of the territory where Notre Dame and UConn have been living. That you have to build for, work for, recruit for and finally perform, over the course of time.

On Sunday, it was time for the Cardinals. With Ohio River floodwaters pressing against floodwalls in downtown Louisville, this group of women team broke through the doors. The game, in a way, is an afterthought. Beating Pittsburgh 81-49 was no sweat. Finishing the regular season 29-2 and ranked No. 4 in the nation was the result of a whole lot of sweat. And while coaches and players hope there are much bigger things ahead, this conference championship provides yet another stamp of legitimacy on the program’s passport to elite status.

“This is the hardest that I’ve pushed a team during the regular season, because we had the opportunity to win a conference championship,” Walz said. “. . . One we beat Notre Dame here at home, we knew everything was in front of us. We pushed them hard, and they responded.”

The day also represented the last regular-season home game for senior Myisha Hines-Allen, who hopes she’ll return to the KFC Yum! Center soon for NCAA Tournament games if the Cardinals can play well in the ACC Tournament. For Hines-Allen, an ACC Player of the Year as a sophomore on her way to three-time All-ACC honors, it was a fitting end. She finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds, her 43rd career double-double. U of L during her four seasons has gone 111-25.

After the game, she took a victory lap with a large sign the ACC provided, denoting the Cardinals as 2018 champions. She posed with the trophy. And she said she isn’t finished.

“I’m just happy we won,” she said, with the game net draped around her neck. “. . . That was my first, I had never won a championship before, high school, AAU. This was cool. We’ve got more business to take care of here. My senior day, I’m happy that we were able to play for a championship, and just experience this. You win a championship, you cut down a net, you wear these T-shirts, you hear the crowd and see your teammates, it’s something you won’t forget.”

I know the 10,431 fans in the arena understand what I’m about to say. And I know there are many more who do, too. I don’t know if the larger fanbase as a whole does, or if it doesn’t.

But this program, overshadowed as it has been by the men’s basketball program and its various sideshows in recent years, and alongside the occasional bursts into the spotlight by the football program and the unparalleled excellence of Lamar Jackson, has been a chief export of the university and its athletic program for the past decade.

Even in a sad time for the school’s athletic program, with 2013 NCAA championship memorabilia being removed from the arena, this program has given Louisville fans something to cheer about, and in fact, is the clubhouse leader for next program to hang a banner in the arena.

This program is one its fans should feel good about, and should support in a big way. This team has a chance to reach a Final Four without leaving the state of Kentucky.

For a women’s sport to rise up, again, in these times, is testament to the strides that women’s athletics has made at U of L, not long after the university was slammed by a national publication for its attitude toward women.

Walz took a moment after the game to mention former athletic director Tom Jurich, who insisted that the program move into Freedom Hall, that the athletic get its gender equity house in order, that women’s sports excel.

“This is great,” Walz said. “It’s 11 years in the works. You know, I have to thank Tom. There’s no question, I wouldn’t be here if not for Tom Jurich believing in me 11 years ago. So this is just as much his work as mine, and I’m very grateful for that. And Christine Herring has been fantastic in the years that she has been there for me and helped us as (senior woman administrator), and then Vince has come in and I think he’s done a very nice job too. When all that chaos went on he just kind of let us focus on what we do. But I definitely want to thank Tom, because it’s something we talked about, building a program and not just a team. And I think we’ve done that over 11 years and turned this into a nationally known program that’s going to be there year in and year out.”

And at this time, for this university, this program means even more than that.

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