It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for University of Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz, whose team had been hit with injuries.
Tia Gibbs and Asia Taylor were projected starters and key players off past teams who never played in a game because of injuries, while Shawnta Dyer went down with a season-ending knee injury in December.
Senior Monique Reid hasn’t been the same since coming back from a knee injury and late in the season saw the minutes she could play because of pain dwindle.
”It’s been tough,” Walz said before the NCAA Tournament. “But these kids have responded, they have done everything we have asked of them.
”They’ve worked so hard for us all season.”
And now, the hard work has paid off. The Cardinals – a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament after losing to Notre Dame in the Big East Conference Tournament semifinals – won the first two games at home over Middle Tennessee and Purdue.
The Cardinals then crashed the Midwest Regional party as Walz put it, pulling off stunners in beating No. 1 and defending national champion Baylor 82-81 on Sunday and then taking down eight-time national champion Tennessee 86-78 in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night in the regional final.
”I never would have dreamed that we would be able to do what we’ve done,” Walz said. “But it’s all a credit to these players. It’s an unbelievable story. I mean it really is. And we aren’t planning to end it right now.”
U of L is back in the Final Four for the second time in school history, the first in 2009, when the Cardinals advanced to the national title game behind All-American Angel McCoughtry and lost to Connecticut. U of L will play California in a 6:30 p.m. semifinal on Sunday night in New Orleans.
”We’ve made history,” U of L sophomore Sara Hammond said.
Added sixth-year senior Monique Reid: “Like we always say, hate it or love it, the underdogs are on top. It’s crazy. We did it. Nobody believed in us but we believed in ourselves. The world’s going to know our name now. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Reid is the only player to be on both Final Four teams at U of L. She was a freshman who played key minutes in ’09 and now as Walz put it “playing on one leg,” she’s been huge for the Cardinals. She hit the game-winning free throws against Baylor on Sunday and had 12 points against the Volunteers.
”It’s amazing,” Reid said.
It has been that after losing three of its final six regular-season games, U of L tied for third in the Big East and then beat St. John’s to make it into the semifinals of the conference tournament where it lost to Notre Dame.
But the St. John’s seed ensured a No. 5 seed.
And the rest is history. The Cardinals led by 19 points on Sunday and stunned the world in a game ESPN is calling the biggest upset in women’s college basketball history. Tennessee coach Holly Warwick said the Volunteers took note.
”You’ve gotta do something right if you know off Baylor because Baylor is an unbelievable team,” she said. “And so to know them off and then come in here and play the way they did, they had a great tournament. And I think they’ll be competitive (at the Final Four). I’m sure they’ll be ready to play.”
Walz has said several times during his career at U of L that he relishes the underdog role and he played it up this week.
In the days leading up to the Baylor game, Walz joked with the media about the best chance for his team was Baylor not showing up. He laughed it up but in the end was the only coach in the regional left smiling.
Walz, who signed a seven-year contract extension last summer, has now coached the program to four Sweet 16s – the only four in school history – and two Final Fours in six years on the job.
”We’re trying to get ourselves there,” Walz said. “I mean our goal every year is to compete and get to the Final Four. It’s how you play at the end of the year, that’s all that matters. It’s March Madness. We have found a way to do that.
”And it’s crazy right now. So we’re thrilled. I believe we have a program, not just a team. And I think we have proven that. . . . I know we’re getting a chance to play in the Final Four and it’s a memory these players will never forget.
”You beat Baylor with arguably one of the best players to play in the game. Everybody thought that was a fluke. And I promise you no one thought we’d win tonight either except for this team. And we figured a way to pull it out.”