Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz is upbeat about next season despite the disappointing end to the Cardinals' surprising NCAA tournament run. Walz views Tuesday night's 93-60 shellacking against Connecticut as the start of bigger things to come.
The Cardinals (29-9) made their first title game appearance since 2009, pulling off the monumental upset of defending champion and top-seeded Baylor along the way. Walz is also encouraged by tournament wins over Tennessee and California.
Louisville made the run without three key players, including starting forward Shawnta' Dyer. She was sidelined with a torn ACL in December. Senior Monique Reid departs, but Louisville returns leading scorer Shoni Schimmel and point guard Bria Smith. The improvement of Jude Schimmel, Antonita Slaughter and Sara Hammond gives the Cardinals an experienced core next season.
Walz said he's "really excited" about the team's potential next season, "but at the same time I've got to make sure my players understand that we just went on a pretty special run. And if you're going to sit here this spring and summer and think that same thing is going to happen without going back to work and getting better individually, it's not going to happen.
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"I challenged them in the locker room after the game. I said, 'Hey, this is unbelievable, something you'll never forget. I'm not going to forget it either. But if you're satisfied with this, that's not what I want.'"
Complacency seems unlikely for a Cardinals squad that has become used to overcoming adversity the past few seasons.
Louisville began without forward Asia Taylor and guard Tia Gibbs because of hip injuries that ultimately sidelined them for the entire season. Dyer's knee injury last December erased another forward, but once again more Cardinals stepped up to fill the void.
Slaughter, a 6-foot-1 junior guard, provided perhaps the biggest boost for Louisville. She doubled her scoring average to 10.1 points per game thanks to wicked perimeter shooting, culminating in 18 points on six 3-pointers that got her team into the final.
Hammond (10.8 points, 6.4 rebounds), a sophomore forward, bolstered the inside game. The backcourt development of sophomore Jude Schimmel, particularly during the postseason, helped her step out of the shadow of her older sister.
Still, the Cardinals' opponents will focus on Shoni Schimmel (14.8 points), who moved to wing and stepped into the spotlight with her scoring, drives to the basket and fearlessness, which she displayed against 6-8 Baylor All-American Brittney Griner in Louisville's 82-81 regional semifinal victory.
Shoni Schimmel believes the confidence Louisville gained from being giant-killers during the tournament will carry the Cardinals further next season.
"I think it's us still believing in the fact that we did make it this far and we are losing two seniors," said Schimmel, referring to the exits of Reid and Shelby Harper. "But, hey, everybody's coming back, and so that's bad for everybody else because we did make this run at the end of tournament, and it's just going to continue into next season.
"We're just going to get better and grow as a team and learn from this and hopefully be back next year."