By Jeff Latzke
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Jeff Walz sees no reason to pile on with all the pressure that naturally comes with the NCAA women’s tournament.
The Louisville coach wants his players to play fearless, play free and have fun. Even against two of the sport’s most intimidating opponents, the formula worked to perfection.
Shoni Schimmel scored 24 points and the plucky Cardinals beat second-seeded Tennessee 86-78 Tuesday night to earn their second trip to the Final Four, continuing a captivating postseason run.
Two nights after taking down Brittney Griner and defending national champion Baylor, the fifth-seeded Cardinals (28-8) built a 20-point lead then withstood a second-half comeback by the powerhouse Lady Vols (27-8) before celebrating another big victory.
“I’m proud of every single one of them, and I know that we’re getting a chance to go play in the Final Four. It’s a memory these players will never forget,” Walz said.
“You beat Baylor with arguably one of the best players to ever play the game, everybody thought that was a fluke. And I promise you no one thought we’d win tonight, either, except this team, and we figured out a way to pull it out.”
When it was over, the Cardinals huddled at center court and shouted “Louisville!” in celebration.
The Cardinals became only the second No. 5 seed to reach the national semifinals, joining Southwest Missouri State’s 2001 team that featured guard Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history. Only seven teams outside of the top four seeds have ever made it to the Final Four since the NCAA tournament started in 1982.
No team seeded higher than fourth has ever won a game at the Final Four. But the seemingly impossible hasn’t stopped this group of Cardinals yet.
First, they took down Griner and her Baylor team that had lost just once in 75 games. Then, it was the eight-time national champion Lady Volunteers.
Next up is a Sunday showdown in New Orleans against Final Four newcomer California, the Spokane regional champion.
“We were going out there to win, and that’s exactly what we did is we beat Baylor and we beat Tennessee,” said Schimmel, the regional’s most outstanding player, “and now we’re going to the Final Four.”
Taber Spani led the Lady Vols with 20 points, and Meighan Simmons and Kamiko Williams chipped in 12 apiece. Tennessee headed home with a third straight loss in the regional finals, failing to make the Final Four for a fifth straight year.
Louisville joins the school’s men’s team in the national semifinals, marking the 10th time that a program had both teams make it that far. Only Connecticut has won both titles in the same season, in 2004.
The Cardinals’ only other Final Four trip was in 2009 behind Angel McCoughtry and ended in a loss to Big East rival Connecticut in the championship game. Tennessee was trying to add to its NCAA-record 18 Final Four trips.
“Hate it or love it, the underdogs are on top,” said Monique Reid, who hit the clinching free throws to beat Baylor on Sunday night. “It’s crazy. Nobody believed in us, but we believed in ourselves. The world’s going to know our name now. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Walz showed his players the documentary on North Carolina State’s 1983 team that made perhaps the most notable Cinderella run to the men’s championship and footage of Muhammad Ali to try and inspire them. He also took them to Ali’s center in Louisville.
“Because no one believed that we could win, I just kept telling them we’re playing with house money, people. I mean, if we win, hey, it’s one more to chalk up. If we lose, everybody’s going to say, ‘I told you so.’ So, who cares? And that’s how they approached it.”
Louisville rode a hefty rebounding advantage and another solid 3-point shooting outing — especially when compared to Tennessee’s 0-for-9 start — to take a 49-29 edge 90 seconds after halftime following back-to-back 3s from Antonita Slaughter and Shoni Schimmel. That same tandem combined for 12 of the Cardinals’ 16 treys, matching the tournament record, in the epic upset of Baylor.
Spani finally broke Tennessee’s 3-point drought right after that, and the Lady Vols were able to chip away at the 20-point deficit. Their full-court pressure, which wasn’t tight enough to prevent over-the-top passes for layups in the first half, started to be effective.
Tennessee gave up just one basket over an 8-minute span, and Williams’ short jumper at the end of an 18-6 rally got the Lady Vols as close as 68-65 with 4:28 remaining.
Spani missed a 3-pointer from the right wing that would have tied it on the next possession, and Tennessee’s comeback fizzled after that.
Shoni Schimmel had a pair of driving layups and Jude Schimmel hit a 3-pointer and set up Slaughter for a reverse layup in a 9-3 burst for Louisville. Even when Simmons, who started out 1 for 22 in the two games in Oklahoma City, hit three late 3-pointers, it wasn’t enough for Tennessee.
“We thought we had a good year, but we didn’t have a great year. That’s just the nature of our program and our expectations,” said Holly Warlick, the longtime assistant in her first season replacing NCAA wins leader Pat Summitt as coach.
“Whether you’re Pat Summitt or myself, it’s just what we’re all about. It’s in our blood. It’s in our makeup.”