By Matt Bradshaw —
Amidst all the accolades women’s basketball achieved in 2017-18, one behind-the-scenes moment stands out as indicative of the dynamic duo of head coach Jeff Walz and preseason All-American guard Asia Durr.
Muffet McGraw, Hall of Fame head coach for defending national champion Notre Dame, disputed Durr being named 2018 ACC player of the year. McGraw referred to Durr as “the other player” last season and advocated for her own leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale as deserving of the honor.
While subjective to say which player is definitively better, the Cardinals certainly outplayed the Fighting Irish head-to-head. Louisville thumped their conference foe by 33 points during the regular season and edged them in the finals of the 2018 ACC Championship.
Following the victory, Walz added insult to injury by shaking McGraw’s hand and stating “My player’s name is Asia Durr.” When asked for her thoughts, Durr responded with devotion for her team and mentor: “That’s one of the reasons why I came here. Coach Walz, he has our backs.”
Notre Dame had the final say and won the NCAA title, while U of L lost in the Final Four to Mississippi State. The Cards were one layup away from facing the Fighting Irish for a third time, but it turned out the two would have to wait nine months before they play again this season.
Louisville now begins their 2018-19 run with perhaps more spotlight and anticipation than ever before. The program has certainly worked its way into the national conversation previously, recording seven consecutive NCAA appearances and two NCAA runner-up finishes across five years.
“The growth of our program is just outstanding,” Walz said. “When I got the job, Tom’s [Jurich] goal was for us to get to the Sweet 16. Now we could lose in the Sweet 16 and it’s a terrible year for some people.”
Last year upped the ante for numerous reasons, but five come to mind right away: Twenty wins to start the season. Program-best 36-3 record. Both regular season and tournament titles in the ACC. First-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Third Final Four appearance in ten years.
One achievement evading the program’s resume is notable: A national title. Two games into the current season, the possibility of the outcome is as favorable as ever.
“I’m not going to base last year’s success by the fact we lost in overtime in the semifinals,” Walz said. “It was a remarkable year, but our ultimate goal is to win a national championship here.”
Walz will lead the charge back into the NCAA tournament as the most successful coach in women’s basketball school history. Twelve seasons at the job, he has cemented elite status by inheriting a program that had never reached a Sweet 16 and amassing a 301-96 overall record (68 percent winning percentage).
Moreover, the team returns an All-American for only the second time in school history. Durr, a 5-foot-10 senior from Georgia, enters her final year as a Cardinal ranked sixth all-time in scoring (1,743 points) and second in made three-point shots (278).
“I came here to win a championship, so I don’t care how well I play this year,” Durr said. “It’s team first, not me first. We’ve been working/training hard and we are striving for a title.”
ESPNW ranked Durr No. 2 out of the top-25 players in the country. Ogunbowale ranked No. 4 on the same list.
“She’s special. She can put the ball in the basket, she makes big shots and she’s fun to watch,” Walz said on Durr. “That’s why fans come out to watch us. We’ve had Angel [McCoughtry], we’ve had Shoni [Schimmel] and now it’s Asia Durr.”
Noticeably missing from the current squad is Myisha Hines-Allen, who ended her career ranked third-all time in scoring (2,028 points). Her dominating presence on the court is impossible to replace, but the depth of Louisville basketball is more than ready for the challenge.
In their season-opening victories at Western Kentucky and Chattanooga, at least nine Cardinals put points on the board and five scored double-digits. Expect forwards Bionca Dunham, Sam Fuehring and Kylee Shook to pack the punches down-low this season while a lightning-fast backcourt outruns the floor against every opponent.
“I’ve got a group of young women that want to win,” Walz said. “It’s not necessarily all about ‘do I get a start.’ It’s about ‘are they going to get a chance to contribute when it matters?’”
With the pieces set and the board moving, all that remains is for U of L to grind and prove themselves worthy of a national title. The No. 4 Cards trail No. 1 Notre Dame in the national rankings and should anticipate a fierce battle for the conference championship late in the season.
U of L takes on the Fighting Irish Jan 10. Alongside opponents like No. 2 UConn and No. 16 NC State, Card Nation can expect an exciting season from Louisville women’s basketball.
“It’s one game at a time,” Walz said. “Now it’s just a matter of keeping that consistency there.”
You can catch women’s basketball in their home opener at the KFC Yum! Center on Monday, Nov. 26 against Miami (OH).
You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.
File Photo / The Louisville Cardinal