OKLAHOMA CITY — Sponging up tales of Jim Valvano and Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Cardinals are embracing the role of the underdog in the most fearless of fashions.
Two of women’s basketballs biggest powers didn’t faze them. Why should the Final Four?
Shoni Schimmel scored 24 points and plucky Louisville beat second-seeded Tennessee 86-78 Tuesday night to earn the school’s 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 and then withstood a second-half comeback by the powerhouse Lady Vols (27-8) before celebrating another big victory.
“It’s a remarkable group. It’s an unbelievable story. That’s really what it is,” coach Jeff Walz said. “And we aren’t planning on it to end right now.”
When it was over, the Cardinals huddled at center court and celebrated. Tennessee headed home with a third straight loss in the regional finals, failing to make the Final Four for a fifth straight year.
“We ruined the entire party,” Walz said. “We’re the ugly ducklings that ruined the party. No one gave us a chance and we shocked everybody. It’s a journey and we’re going to continue.”
Taber Spani led the Lady Vols with 20 points, and Meighan Simmons and Kamiko Williams chipped in 12 apiece.
Louisville joined the school’s men’s team in the Final Four, 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 last time the women’s champion was crowned in New Orleans.
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 California, the Spokane regional champion.
“No one wanted to see us beat Baylor and Tennessee and we did both of those, and now we’re going to the Final Four,” Schimmel said.
The Cardinals’ only other Final Four trip was in 2009, ending 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.
Walz showed the team the documentary on Valvano’s North Carolina State 1983 team that made perhaps the most notable Cinderella run to the men’s championship. He also showed them footage of Ali and took them to Ali’s center in Louisville.
“Seeing a lot of the underdog things like that, it just motivated us even more to believe in each other and believe in ourselves,” said Schimmel’s younger sister, Jude, who scored 15 points.
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 NCAA 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.
“We just needed to make that 3 to get the momentum, and it just didn’t go down,” said coach Holly Warlick, the longtime assistant in her first year replacing Pat Summitt.
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.
The Cardinals shouted “Louisville!” at the logo in the middle of the court in celebration. Spani, a senior, dropped to her knees in tears at the final buzzer.
“Any Tennessee team that doesn’t make a Final Four doesn’t reach expectations. That’s the amazing and the great thing about this program is no matter what the transition was, no matter what it looked like, no matter what excuse you might put it out or if you’re a young team or not, the bar is the Final Four. And I think that’s what makes this program special,” Spani said.
“To come short of that is disappointing.”
Louisville came out firing from long range again and connected four times in first seven attempts while building an early 21-11 advantage. Then, it was a sticky 1-3-1 zone defense that propelled Louisville on an 8-0 run, keeping the Lady Vols scoreless for a 5½ minute stretch, to expand the lead out to 31-14 after Sherrone Vails’ putback with 3:51 to go until halftime.
Just like in the previous round, when a 19-point lead disappeared before Monique Reid’s winning free throws in the final seconds, the Cardinals had to hang on for dear life at the end.
“With both games this week, nobody thought we could win. There’s not anybody in here that still actually believes that we beat Baylor,” Walz said. “I told our players after that that we have nothing to lose at all, so who cares?”