CRAWFORD | Louisville women locked in on Mississippi State task in last Final Four practice
In their final workout before Friday's national semifinal matchup against Mississippi State, the Cardinals were relaxed, but focused. Eric Crawford provides a look at the scene.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WDRB) – When a team is dialed in and completely consumed with its task, there’s a certain beauty to the communication that occurs. The coaches have put certain principles in place all season, and players begin to take them and run with them as the season progresses.
I’ve seen it up close in locker rooms with Bellarmine basketball teams. I saw it happen with the University of Louisville men’s teams in 2013. And the Louisville women had that look at times during Thursday’s two-hour practice in Nationwide Arena for Friday’s Final Four matchup against Mississippi State.
The team was laid back and smiling to open the session. Players decided that any missed layup would require the offender to sprint the court, and that extended to three-point drills. But once the drills were over, and segments against scout teams began, the looks got a lot more serious.
Associate head coach Stephanie Norman was telling players what to expect, instructing on how plays should be run, talking about tweaks on defense. If the players didn’t do it the right way, they’d run it again, to get the look that Jeff Walz and the coaches wanted. When she rotated out, junior point guard Arica Carter stood beside Walz and directed teammates, talked to players about how to approach screens.
“When you get to this point,” Norman said. “You’re staring excellence in the face.”
For Louisville, the x’s and o’s of what a Mississippi State team that has lost only once all season are easy enough to absorb. The difficulty comes in the execution. The Bulldogs have a senior first-team All-American guard in Victoria Vivians. She’s averaging just over 20 points a game in NCAA Tournament play and shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range. They also have 6-7 Teaira McCowan, who tied an NCAA record with 11-for-11 shooting in one regional win and had 21 rebounds in another.
With players that good, you can do the right things and still fall short.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma called this Final Four, comprised of four No. 1 seeds with a combined total of six losses between them, one of the best he’s been a part of.
“You can’t leave any stones unturned,” Auriemma said. “Every kid better be on their best behavior. And whatever they’ve been doing all year long, they better do it that well and better. The hard part is that you can do all that and still get your ass beat. Knowing that, it’s kind of like, we could do everything right this week, prepare, do everything, have everything taken care of, every contingency, everything, and then go out and still get smacked. There have been some years you could say, ‘OK, look, if we do A, B, C and D, there is no way we can lose.’ That’s not happening this week.”
As a result, Louisville coaches were talking not just about doing the right things on defense Thursday, but doing them at the right time. Little angles, hand position, footwork, when the competition gets this good and the teams are this close, little things matter.
At the same time, coaches didn’t linger on much. One or two repetitions of a look, and they moved on. They were going to watch a few more things on video Thursday night – but not a bunch. Walz basically said that, in the end, things have to be taken care of on the court, in the game.
“We know what to do,” Walz said. “We’re 38 games into the season. We’re good at what we’re good at, and bad at what we’re bad at. It’s not going to change now. So we just need to keep doing what we do. Tomorrow’s game, they’re going to come out and have a good warmup, and we’re going to approach it like we have for the last 38 ballgames. The stakes are the same as they were in Round 1: Lose and you’re finished.”
With the exception of the style of their post players, these teams are remarkably similar. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer and Walz are friends. They talk periodically during the season. They watch each other’s teams on television if they have the chance.
“Offensively and defensively, they’re a mirror image,” Schaefer said of Louisville. “They’re tough, they’re physical, aggressive. We have really focused on them.”
Listen to the MSU players and you can tell the scouting has gotten through.
“You have to box them out,” McCowan said. “That’s something coach has been emphasizing all week. We can’t let them get a second shot. Make them one and done.”
Senior Roshunda Johnson, on guarding Louisville All-American Asia Durr: “We want to limit her touches, but at the same time, we have to focus on everybody. I feel like we have to try to tire her out, focus, play good defense and be solid.”
It’s a big game that could be decided on small things. Many of them are.
“I feel like we have to play within ourselves,” Carter said. “Even though we’re very much alike . . . have to try to frustrate them as much as we can, get to all the 50-50 balls, play hard and within ourselves.”
Little things. As Norman said, if you’re still playing at this time of year, you’re staring excellence in the face.
For Louisville, with a little luck and a lot of execution, maybe it’ll nod in its direction.
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