Schimmel back for final act
Equal parts skillful and impetuous, senior is game's most fascinating character
Try to see the court as Shoni Schimmel sees it as she dribbles the length of the floor at a dead sprint with 9 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the second half of an NCAA tournament game against Baylor.
As she races down the right side and crosses half court, Schimmel sees Brittney Griner 5 feet ahead of her, running down the middle of floor. Ahead of Griner, there is nothing but open court, the only other Baylor player in Schimmel's field of vision committed to Louisville's Antonita Slaughter as the red-hot shooter drifts toward the far corner.
Griner moves toward the sideline to intercept Schimmel. Now halfway between the half-court line and top of the key and still at full speed, Schimmel dribbles around her back without breaking stride, avoiding Griner, and angles toward the lane. She could pull up for a 3-pointer before Griner has time to recover. She could whip a pass to Slaughter for a 3-point attempt. But all game long Schimmel has been trying to get to the basket, trying to attack a player who piled up more blocks by herself than most college teams. There is no choice in her mind. She has a step on Griner, so she goes. Even if a step isn't enough.
"My five steps were her two steps, so we ended up at the same place at the same time," Schimmel recalls.
She leaps while still in front of the basket, momentum carrying her to the left side. Griner jumps, too, her long right arm stretching out over Schimmel's head. If Griner continues unobstructed, her hand will reach the ball. Instead of squaring her shoulders to the basket, Schimmel shifts her body so that her back shields the bigger defender.
She flips the ball unsighted over her head. The whistle blows as it arcs toward the basket. It banks off the glass and slips through the net. Count it. And one.
"I don't want to say it was a miracle how it happened," Schimmel said recently. "But it was just kind of crazy how it happened."
Connecticut won the national championship a season ago. But the game that most outside of that state and that fan base will remember from the NCAA tournament, the game that will define the season, was Louisville's Sweet 16 win against Baylor. And the moment from that game that will live on in highlights long after the championship trophy begins collecting dust came when Schimmel hit her circus shot and popped back off the ground to stand toe to toe, if not quite face to face, with Griner.
It didn't matter that Louisville was already ahead by 14 points at the time or that Baylor then came all the way back to reclaim the lead in the closing seconds. It didn't matter that it was Monique Reid's free throws that ultimately clinched one of the all-time upsets. Fair or not, those facts will fade into trivia. People will remember the three-point play. On a night that saw the Cardinals hit 16 3-pointers, including five from Schimmel, her more complicated three-point play seemed the surest confirmation that something strange, something impossible, was afoot. If that just happened, it proclaimed, Louisville really could win.
It was bold, skillful and fortunate, probably in equal amounts. It was a play few could pull off and fewer still would try. Not in that moment. Not against that player. Brave or foolish, impetuous or daring, it was unmistakably unique. As is she.
Louisville doesn't have the best player in the country, but it has the most fascinating character in college basketball's cast this season.
As he stood in front of the bench nearest to the basket at which Schimmel scored and watched the play unfold, Louisville coach Jeff Walz knew she wasn't going to stop until she got to the basket. He had seen the same look on her face in the first half, just before Griner predictably swatted her shot. He has seen it for the better part of three seasons, be it on a basketball court or a whiffle ball field or over a pingpong net. She always thinks she can win the point, the game, the moment. It is her best asset and her greatest liability.
The first game Schimmel ever played for Walz was against Tennessee in front of more than 20,000 fans on the night the Cardinals played for the first time in the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville. She was bold that night, too, but fortune didn't favor her in that instance. Her first-half line: 9 minutes, 0 points, 7 turnovers.
Come the second half, the coach sent her back out on the court. There was no miracle comeback to lead, just experience to gain.
I'm just a believer that when you're recruiting players who are explosive, dynamic and can do things, if you try and handcuff them early in their career, you're never going to get the best out of them. You've got to be willing to let them make mistakes.” -- Louisville coach Jeff Walz
"I wasn't going to sit there and try to control how she played," Walz said. "I wanted her to learn from her mistakes, to learn when was a good time to attack, when was a good time to take that 3 out of transition, I'm just a believer that when you're recruiting players who are explosive, dynamic and can do things, if you try and handcuff them early in their career, you're never going to get the best out of them. You've got to be willing to let them make mistakes."
Schimmel enters her final season as one of the most talented guards in the country, a position she had staked out by the time she scored 33 points in a second-round NCAA tournament upset against Xavier near the end of that first season. But when it comes to assessing her place within that tier of elite players, those mistakes make her a conundrum.
In her first three seasons, Schimmel shot 38 percent from the floor and committed 3.7 turnovers per game. In the same span, among peers who have the ball in their hands a lot, Duke's Chelsea Gray shot 44 percent and committed 2.6 turnovers per game, and Baylor's Odyssey Sims shot 46 percent and committed 2.4 per game. Even if a true combo guard with a greater shooting volume is a more apt comparison, Minnesota's Rachel Banham, an elite scorer with flair of her own, shot 43 percent and averaged 3.0 turnovers per game in her first two seasons.
Schimmel gives her team a chance to win every night because of the things she can do. There are nights when it also feels like she gives the other team its best to chance to win because of the things she does.
"Turnovers, I don't like them at all," Schimmel said. "But you're not going to not turn the ball over. It's impossible. Everybody turns the ball over. But I definitely try to get more assists than turnovers. I'm not trying to turn the ball over, it just happens sometimes."
Her assists have outnumbered her turnovers each season. And Walz credited her for improved recognition of time and score, the acknowledgment that there are times for discretion. If improving and perfecting might be two different things, she has nonetheless limited her largesse, cutting her turnovers from 4.0 per game as a freshman to 3.8 per game as a sophomore and 3.3 per game a season ago in similar minutes. But she is never going to be a model of efficiency, nor is she asked to be. She turned over the ball five times and missed more than half her shots against Baylor. The plays she made more than balanced the ledger.
That's the calculation Louisville lives by.
"If we can get her down to about 2 to 2½ [turnovers] a game, I think that's doable for her," Walz said. "But I don't want to take away her willingness to make that pass that not everybody else can make. … You don't make that pass if you're always worrying about turning the ball over."
Anyone who spends four years in college and doesn't grow and mature, often through the experience of missteps, has wasted his or her time. Schimmel has grown in her time at Louisville. She has always been good with the community, with the girls drawn to her behind-the-back passes and acrobatic shots, but school itself was by all accounts a struggle initially. The newness and freedom of college tested her focus. Basketball always mattered most for her growing up. For younger sister and Louisville teammate Jude, the equation was reversed, grades a goal that trumped points. It was Jude who earned the Elite 89 Award at the Final Four, given in recognition of academic excellence among championship participants. But over time, she has seen her older sister balance school and basketball more efficiently.
"Even now she's starting to understand grades really do make a difference," Jude said. "So she's trying to put in more effort to get the best grades she can get. And the understanding that education, once she gets done playing in the pros and things like that after basketball, she's going to need her education. I think she's finally started to understand that."
Louisville has played for the national championship twice in the past five seasons, more times, Walz enjoys pointing out, than a heck of a lot of programs that had more McDonald's All-Americans than the Cardinals. Not every program could have coalesced around a unique talent and personality like Angel McCoughtry. Not every program could live with the ups and downs of Schimmel's mesmerizingly reckless play. It works at Louisville, especially in March. It works because a program embraces the unique.
When all Shoni saw between her and the basket was the greatest shot-blocker the game has ever known, there was really only one choice.
"She's just really competitive and she really loves the game of basketball," Jude said. "It's like her true love, she just enjoys it so much."
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