Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Louisville Cardinals: Giant Killers Extraordinaire

Thank you Louisville Cardinals, for loading up your slingshot and taking down one Goliath after another.

photo:  AP
Shoni Schimmel interviewed after the Baylor game: "She's great, but she's human. I mean, she's Brittney Griner. But I'm Shoni Schimmel."

The Vols learned that the hard way last night.

Louisville 86, Tennessee 78

Fear the Cardinals!

After their historic take-down of Baylor on Sunday night, I wondered how much the Cardinals had left in the tank? Would they be able to put the Baylor game behind them and prepare for the Lady Vols? Would they have the mental strength and mental stamina for this Elite Eight game? Would they have dead legs? Those were legit questions.

Louisville came out and smoked Tennessee in the first half, but after building their lead to 20 points in the early moments of the second half, things fell apart for Jeff Walz' merry band. They looked discombobulated. Tennessee tightened the screws on defense and had a hand in just about every passing lane. Whereas in the first half, Louisville owned the offensive boards, the Vols shut that down. And mighty Tennessee started chipping away at the lead, going on an 18-6 rally that closed the gap to 68-65 with 4:28 remaining.

photo:  Sue Ogrocki, AP
Louisville looked tired. All the momentum was flowing to Tennessee. It looked like the magic might be over.

Then Shoni Schimmel woke up and energized her team. She drove the lane and put in a pair of spectacular lay ups. Her sister, Jude, drained a huge 3-point bucket.

The moment Shoni Schimmel put in that first lay up, it was all over for the Vols. As goes Shoni Schimmel, so go the Louisville Cardinals. There is a lot of playground superstar in that kid, is there not?

What they have done is nothing short of remarkable, slaying dragons right and left, making it to the Final Four after being seeded as a #6. After dispatching the great Brittney Griner and Baylor (the best team in the country and that's not my opinion:  that was everybody's opinion), they had to face the Tennessee Lady Vols, the program which is women's basketball as Coke is to soda. Beyond question, Tennessee is most recognized, original brand in hoops. So thanks Shoni and thanks coach Jeff Walz and thanks to all the other players who have pulled some more magic to keep this run going.

Before I get carried away here, I should point out that while the Cardinals were 'dogs in both of these games, they are not a bad team that simply caught lightning in a bottle. All of the talking heads keep opining, "This team finished THIRD in the Big East." As though finishing third in the BE was a mark of shame or indicated mediocrity. Finishing third in the BE simply means that they finished behind two of best teams in the country in Notre Dame and UConn. Ain't no shame in that.

So let me take a moment to eulogize the Big East ... 

From 2000 to 2013, 73 Big East Teams have been invited to the tourney, with nine teams going in 2011. Maybe another conference tops that, but I really doubt it.

photo:  AP
In that same time span, four different Big East teams (UConn, Rutgers, L'Ville and Notre Dame) have played in the Final Four with 16 total appearances by those teams. Those same programs have all advanced to the championship at least once and there have been 11 appearances by Big East teams in the championship game. Seven times the championship has been won by a Big East team. [Okay, six of those were UConn, with Notre Dame winning the other championship in 2001. But still.]

Here is a tiny sampling of some of the great players we've seen in that time:   Maya Moore,  Renee Montgomery, Niele Ivey, Kia Vaughn, Angel McCoughtry, and the great Diana Taurasi.

Two Big East coaches have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Geno Auriemma and C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers.

This year, the conference gives us the gifts of Skylar Diggins, Shoni Schimmel and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, just to name a few. It is the conference that keeps on giving.

Next year, the party breaks up and it will be worse than the post-party aftermath than Ryan's house in Sixteen Candles. Notre Dame and Louisville (plus Syracuse and Pitt) are heading to the ACC. Rutgers is joining the Big 10. Poor UConn is simply left adrift. It is the end of an era. Hopefully, these coaches -- all of them -- will schedule each other in their non-conference games. Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw have both shown a real willingness to do just that, so I am hopeful, but it won't quite be the same without the simmering inner-conference bad blood. The Big East Conference final between UConn and Notre Dame was epic. And it was the last of it's kind.

This year, at least one Big East team will play in the final, with the possibility of two (if Louisville can beat Cal in the Final Four.) It is a fitting swan song for this great conference.

There never has been, and may never be again, a women's basketball collection as great as this one.

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