By Sam Draut–

The Louisville women’s basketball team transitions into a new era in  the Atlantic Coast Conference this season with a few returners from a core that experienced the most success in program history.

Gone is Shoni Schimmel, the program’s second leading career scorer.  Asia Taylor and Tia Gibbs exhausted their eligibility after being a Cardinal for five years.  Antonita Slaughter, who hit big shots throughout her career, also graduated.

But the cupboard is not bare.

Louisville head coach Jeff Walz reloaded after losing four stalwarts, hauling one of the nations’ best recruiting classes.   

Paired with five spectacular freshmen are five seniors who have been a part of Louisville’s run to the national championship game and return to the Elite Eight last season.

“We’re fortunate to have Sara Hammond, Bria Smith, Jude Schimmel ,who were a part of last year’s team on the floor.  Now we add Shawnta’ Dyer and Sherrone Vails,” Walz said. “So we have five players that have had a lot of success here.  They understand what is expected of them and they understand the amount of work and dedication you have to have.  They have done a great job teaching the freshmen what to expect and what they need to do.”

Sara Hammond headlines the group of seniors after being selected to the coaches’ and Blue Ribbon Panel’s all-ACC teams.

She started all 38 games last season and averaged 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest.

“It would not surprise me if Sara Hammond averaged 14 to 18 points a game this year,” Walz said. “She knows it is her team now.  It is her senior year. Sara wants to go out on a high note.”

A team that will begin the season ranked twelfth returns a backcourt that have each played in over 100 games in their career.

Smith and Schimmel both played pivotal roles in Louisville’s run to the National Championship in 2013 and Elite Eight appearance last season.

Smith, who has played point guard and shooting guard throughout her career, has averaged 8.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in her three seasons at Louisville.

With her sister Shoni absent, Jude will play an even bigger role than years past.   

“She will be more important to us on the offensive end of the floor.  In the past years, she has been more of a distributor and has gotten the ball to her teammates,” Walz said. “Now, I am asking her score.”

Schimmel averaged 5.6 points per game and dished out 114 assists last season.  She had a 1.65 assist to turnover ratio.

The senior guards add a stout defensive presence. Smith and Schimmel were first and second on the team last year with 55 and 54 steals, respectively.

Louisville hit 221 three pointers last season, but just 36 of those threes return from a year ago.  The perimeter-oriented offense will see a drastic change this season.

Fifth-year seniors Shawnta’ Dyer and Sheronne Vails add a post presence the Cardinals lacked.    

“In practice now, we are six or seven post players deep. In previous years, we were three or four.  We never had any subs, so to have Shawnta and Sherrone back, with their experience,” Hammond said. “Shawnta is our best low block player we have.  Every time she gets it there she scores and then Sherrone’s length and her ability to block shots and create chaos on defense, we are going to need that this year.”

Vails, a 6-foot-4 center, missed the entire 2013-14 season after undergoing knee surgery in summer 2013.  She started 28 games in 2012-13 and averaged four points per game.

Dyer appeared in 15 games early last season before a stress fracture in her left hip ended her season.  She scored 5.1 points per game in her brief campaign.

When healthy, Vails and Dyer add an imposing low post game, allowing Louisville to play inside out instead of relying on a perimeter game.    

“Jude has shot the ball fairly well from the three-point line, Arica Carter has, Megan Deines has. Are we going to be an outside-in offensive team? No, we’re going to be more inside-out this year.  But, we have players that can knock down threes,” Walz said. “So, instead of taking 15 to 18 threes a game, we might be taking eight to ten.  But, I’m still expecting us to be 34 or 35 percent or better from three, you just won’t see us taking as many of them.”

In contrast to the five experienced seniors, Walz has worked to prepare five freshmen to the rigors of college basketball. 

Two McDonalds-All-Americans, Myisha Hines-Allen and Mariya Moore headlined the 2014 recruiting class.  Walz said the two wing players were the most physically ready to play of his five freshmen. 

Hines-Allen is a versatile, 6-foot-2 forward, who ESPN ranked 34th nationally in the 2014 recruiting class. 

“She can play the three or four for us.  She has really shown us that she has a great knack for rebounding the basketball and finishing around the basket.  She has stepped out and shot the three well for us,” Walz said.  “She does have the ability to stretch a defense. Her physicality and her ability to withstand contact and embrace it is going to give her the ability to play early.”

Moore is a 5-foot-11 guard who averaged 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game in her senior year of high school.  She played on the 2014 USA Basketball Women’s U-18 National team.  Walz worked as an assistant coach for the squad. 

Sydney Brackemyre was ranked 37th nationally by ESPN and will provide an outside presence from the forward position. 

Carter will play behind Smith and Schimmel at the guard position.  Walz has been impressed with her ability to defend the ball and get to the rim.  She was 77th nationally out of high school and now looks towards the senior guards to show her the ropes. 

“I have been learning from them and have seen how successful they have been,” Carter said. “I want to be like them, I always ask them questions, I know those are the two I should be watching.”

Ariana Freeman is the final freshman on the roster.  The 5-foot-9 guard was a prolific scorer in high school, but Walz sees defense and rebounding as a way for her to find the floor. 

The development of the five freshmen will be crucial to Louisville’s adjustment to the ACC. 

“I feel confident that all five will be able to be a big part of this team,” Walz said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what freshman steps up and takes playing time away from upperclassmen.”

Collectively, the Cardinals are a cohesive unit determined to continue the success of the program.  Through his seven seasons, Walz has averaged 26 wins per year.   

“The thing I love about our upperclassmen is there is no division. They don’t walk by us and treat us like freshman, they talk to us, they help us and they lead the way,” Freeman said. 

Wedged in between the seniors and freshman are three role players who have played meaningful minutes over the past few years.

Junior Cortnee Walton appeared in 37 games and averaged over 12 minutes a game last season.  The 6-foot-3 forward pulled in 118 rebounds. 

Fellow junior Megan Deines provides a scoring threat off the bench.  She appeared in 33 games last season. 

Lone sophomore Emmonie Henderson averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in 34 games last season.  She added a strong post presence, scoring in double digits seven times and shooting 52 percent from the field. 

After finishing 33-5 in its lone year in the American Athletic Conference, Louisville will face a much more difficult schedule this season.  The returning players may carry the Cardinals early, but the development of the freshmen will determine the success in March.

Photo by Austin Lassell / The Louisville Cardinal