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Cardinals Ride Improbable Journey to New Orleans
By Xavier Bleuel–
Within 48 hours of knocking off Brittney Griner and the number one overall seed Baylor Bears, the Louisville Cardinals shocked the world again with the upset over second seeded and perennial power Tennessee 86-78 on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
The Schimmel sisters, Shoni and Jude, combined for 39 points, including six crucial threes. Shoni was named the regional MVP after her 24 point performance against the Lady Vols.
Louisville is the 10th school to have both its men’s and women’s teams reach the Final Four in the same season. UCONN, who has three teams on the list, most recently accomplished the feat back in 2011. Also, with the victory, for the first time ever the Big East conference will have three members in the Women’s Final Four.
After finishing third in the Big East and losing to Notre Dame by 24 in the conference tournament semi-finals, much wasn’t expected of the Cards. Most experts had them losing in the second round in Purdue, the ones who didn’t only had them advancing one more round to then fall to the favorite Baylor Bears.
“Nobody wanted us to be here,” an ecstatic Shoni said after the game. “Nobody wanted us to beat Baylor and no one wanted us to beat Tennessee, but guess what? We did both.”
Now the Cardinals, who join Southwest Missouri State’s 2001 team as the only two 5th-seeded ball clubs to reach the Final Four, face the California Golden Bears in New Orleans with the right to play either Connecticut or Notre Dame.
The Cardinals didn’t let their last loss to the Fighting Irish deter them from entering the tournament with some confidence.
“Yes, we lost to Notre Dame. But who doesn’t, right?” Shoni said of the Irish, whose only defeat this season was to Baylor in December. “We knew it was NCAA tournament time. Time to dance. That was when we started to peak.”
And peak they did. After running over Middle Tennessee State and Purdue at home, the Cardinals met Baylor and decided they wanted to be physical, drawing the ire from a Robert Griffin the third in the process, claiming the fifth seeded Cardinals (28-8), were “too physical” in their play against Griner, the unanimous All-American selection. Whether it was too physical or not, the Cardinals got the job done, pulling off what some have called the biggest upset in women’s college basketball history.
Then they had to regroup and face the second seeded Lady Volunteers team who hadn’t been to the Final Four since 2008. They came out running on all cylinders like they did against Baylor, jumping out to a 49-29 lead just a minute in to the second half.
When Tennessee made a valiant effort to cut the lead to three at 68-65 with over four minutes remaining, the Cardinals didn’t succumb to the pressure, Baylor did the same just two days ago. They then went on a 7-0 run with Jude hitting a three and sister Shoni converting on two layups. The Lady Vols just couldn’t get close enough after Monique Reid, like she did against Baylor, iced the game with free throws at the end.
“We’re the ugly ducklings of the tournament,” Coach Jeff Walz said afterwards. “But hey, we like it that way.”
Tipoff is Sunday, April 7th at 6:30 pm ET.
Photo courtesy of ajc.com