When Louisville's women's basketball team upset Tennessee in the Elite Eight on Tuesday, the school moved one step closer to making history. Since the NCAA women's tournament debuted in 1983, only one school has won the men's and women's titles in the same year—Connecticut in 2004. The Cardinals have both their teams in the Final Four, and both trophies could be back in Louisville, Kentucky, by this time next week.
How did the Cardinals put themselves in position to match history? That's the best part of the story. The men's team is Goliath; the women's team slayed Goliath.
Since they reeled off a 44-10 run on Syracuse in the second half of the Big East championship game, the Louisville men have been the favorites to win it all. Now, as the only top seed remaining, Rick Pitino's squad is the overwhelming favorite to prevail in the championship game Monday night in Atlanta. The Cardinals have not been challenged in the entire tournament, winning their four games by an average of 22 points.
The team is led by the best backcourt in the country: point guard Peyton Siva and shooting guard Russ Smith. Siva, a senior leader and the best on-the-ball perimeter defender in the country (yes, better than Aaron Craft), anchors Louisville's devastating full-court press, which forced Syracuse into 13 second-half turnovers in the Big East title game. The senior guard was dominant in Louisville's 85-63 dismantling of Duke in the Elite Eight, scoring 16 points and holding Seth Curry to just 12.
If having the most talent isn't enough, Louisville is also playing for a fallen teammate. Kevin Ware suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in televised sports history against Duke, a compound fracture of the tibia that caused the bone to break out of Ware's skin. When Ware was carried off the court on a stretcher, he summoned his teammates to his side, many of whom were inconsolable. "Just win it for me," he whispered, and sure enough, the Cardinals stomped on the Blue Devils and brought the regional trophy to Ware's hospital bed. The inspiring, tear-jerking story will continue this weekend, when Ware accompanies his teammates to the Final Four in Atlanta, which just happens to be his hometown.
A potential rematch with Syracuse looms in the championship, or a clash with Michigan's star guard Trey Burke. And the Cardinals have to get past Wichita State, the tournament's lone remaining Cinderella, in the national semifinals. But with Siva, Smith (averaging 26 points per game in the tournament), and junior center Gorgui Dieng, Louisville appears too strong for anyone to stop.
If the Louisville men were the pre-tournament favorite, the Baylor women were considered a mortal lock to repeat as national champs. After all, they had Brittney Griner, the most overpowering player in women's hoops history, and her trend-setting, above-the-rim game. But the Lady Bears were no match for the Louisville women and their historically hot shooting in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals shot a staggering 16-for-25 (64 percent) from three-point range, coming up with the big shot time and time again in the second half. Coach Jeff Walz's squad also successfully shut down Griner, holding the superstar to 14 points on just 10 shots.
Even after all that, Louisville found itself down a point with 9.1 seconds left. But Monique Reid—a senior bench player and the only remaining member of Louisville's Final Four team from 2009—fearlessly drove down the lane directly at Griner as the seconds ticked away. Reid forced Griner to foul her, then hit both free throws under immense pressure to secure a stunning 82-81 upset.
The Cardinals faced No. 2 seed Tennessee in the Elite Eight, and many pundits expected a letdown after their exhilarating win over Baylor. But point guard Shoni Schimmel carved up the Lady Vols for 24 points, and Louisville built a 20-point lead on its way to an 86-78 win.
The Louisville women took the fight to Baylor and Tennessee, refusing to be intimated by dominant players or storied programs. Schimmel provided the best summary of the team's philosophy during a postgame news conference after the Baylor upset:
It's my mentality to keep going at [Griner]. I mean, she is Brittney Griner, but I'm Shoni Schimmel, so I keep going at her.
Schimmel and her teammates have more long odds to overcome to win it all. No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and Connecticut will meet in one national semifinal, and the victor will be the prohibitive favorite in Tuesday's final. Of course, we've seen how Louisville has handled prohibitive favorites in this tournament. Meanwhile, Wichita State will need to channel the Louisville women's underdog spirit to beat the Louisville men in the Final Four on Saturday.
The school's David-and-Goliath run is most likely just two teams catching lightning in a bottle at the same time—a fluke. But that doesn't make it any less fun, or fascinating, to watch.
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