- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There was plenty of red on display along the bank of the Ohio River on Saturday, a partisan crowd of nearly 10,000 braving an impending storm to watch No. 7 Louisville and 11th-ranked Colorado.
But those weren't sleigh bells ringing in Christmas cheer. Those were whistles sapping good will as they signaled 56 fouls.
Nor was there any snow glistening in the lane, just players gathered around it for a parade of 70 free throws.
It wasn't the kind of game anyone would want to watch in March or April. It was at least a game that should help both teams get to that point.
Playing a meaningful game for the first time without Antonita Slaughter, with apologies to recent opponents, Louisville came away with a 69-62 win.
The Cardinals are now 4-1 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25. That's useful for the résumé come NCAA tournament time, but more useful in the moment is the knowledge that they are 1-0 in those games without Slaughter, the senior who is out for the season after she was diagnosed with a blood clot in her lungs. With the American Athletic Conference offering few marquee games beyond two meetings with Connecticut, Saturday's game was a measuring stick.
It helps to still have Shoni Schimmel. The senior scored a season-high 30 points and added seven rebounds against Colorado. Compared to Schimmel's season averages, those efforts alone effectively made up for the 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game the Cardinals are missing without Slaughter.
Schimmel entered the game having attempted just 13 free throws all season, compared to 100 3-point attempts. She had the former total bested before she stepped to the line for the final time and hit two free throws with 22 seconds remaining that kept her team ahead by five points. For the day, she hit 13 of 16 attempts from the free throw line. The rest of her team turned in a wince-inducing 11-of-24 performance from the line.
Of the many things opposing coaches worry about when it comes to Schimmel, foul trouble among those guarding her typically isn't on the list.
"She's pretty much 80 percent of a jump shooter," Colorado coach Linda Lappe said. "But you know what, when you recognize a mismatch or you recognize something with how they were calling the game, that was smart."
Asked when he had last seen his star drive off the dribble as often as she did Saturday, Jeff Walz joked that it was at Franklin High School in Oregon. And indeed, her previous career high in college was eight attempts.
"He has definitely been pushing me toward this the whole season," Schimmel said. "And being a senior I'm growing up and learning more about the game. I just need to continue to do this and help my team by knocking down big free throws."
One afternoon is a decidedly small sample size, even one that involved Schimmel playing 38 minutes against a quality opponent. If her desire to drive proves fleeting it served her well this once. If it lasts, it's a big deal.
"I don't expect her to get 16 free throws every night," Walz said. "But I still think she'll continue to drive because she's seen success. In anything you do, that's the hardest thing. You try to tell a kid to do something, and if they don't see success, it's like, 'Why am I doing it?' So it's great that she's really starting to see some success."
That's not the only area in which that's true. Walz has never tried to turn Schimmel into something she isn't, never tried to blunt the creativity and boldness that wins -- and loses -- games. But through 10 games, she has 55 assists and 29 turnovers and is shooting 40 percent from the field, efficiency numbers far better than anything she has produced before. There were a couple of full-court passes Saturday and a 3-pointer from somewhere near Jeffersonville, Ind., but for the most part, she played a disciplined, discrete floor game.
"To me it's all time and score," Walz said. "There was no situation in tonight's game for her to throw an off-the-ear pass, behind-the-back pass. It wasn't there, so she didn't do it. Where two years ago, she may have tried to force one to try to make a big play. And she's really grown as a player, just understanding the flow of the game, what's going on."
It's nevertheless a mistake to make Saturday all about Schimmel, at least in terms of where Louisville goes from here.
After his team committed 24 turnovers in a loss at Kentucky on Dec. 1, Walz spoke repeatedly about placing an emphasis on cutting that number. That's all well and good in words, as are the stories about the Cardinals now running extra sprints in practice when they throw the ball away. But actually translating emphasis into results, as they have in committing just 61 turnovers in the past five games, means working through correctable mistakes. Players have worked on taking an extra dribble toward the baseline to open up better angles on post-entry passes, rather than slinging the ball in from bad angles and inviting deflections. The guards have worked to stop picking up the ball after one dribble, instead keeping it alive until the play develops. And the whole team has worked on catching the ball as an act unto itself not just something to take for granted.
They had nine turnovers at halftime Saturday, a reasonable amount in its own right. Over the final 20 minutes, they turned it over just twice more. The starting backcourt of Schimmel, younger sister Jude Schimmel and Bria Smith committed three turnovers in 96 combined minutes.
"We don't win tonight if we turn it over 20 times," Walz said. "We get up 65 field goals and we attempt 40 free throws. You're getting a lot of possessions at the offensive end because you're not turning the ball over. And normally we're not going to shoot that poorly."
The shooting is a concern. Louisville hit just one 3-pointer, the skill at which Slaughter was most adept, against Colorado. Between both Schimmels and Tia Gibbs, Walz believes he still has enough outside cover and that Saturday was an aberration. And as many shots as Louisville missed -- from the free throw line, the 3-point line and even point-blank range -- their ability to keep producing and prolonging possessions paid dividends.
To that end, Gibbs didn't hit any of her four attempts from the 3-point line; she did total eight rebounds, including five on the offensive end.
All of this matters because Colorado isn't Austin Peay or Ball State. This was a real test for Louisville. The reverse is also true. Louisville isn't Wyoming on the road or Iowa at home, arguably the toughest tests taken by previously unbeaten Colorado. The result was frustrating, the stop-and-start play that led to three players fouling out and two more escaping with four fouls only more so. But it wasn't a lost trip.
"You can learn a lot," Lappe said. "We've been begging our players to do a better job on defensive rebounding the whole season. And about five games ago, I said it was going to hurt us at some point. But when you're outrebounding teams by 12 and 15, they don't really understand what they're going to see until you see a team like Louisville who crashes hard and gets in there and puts pressure on you."
Colorado's last lead came with nearly 17 minutes remaining, but it never let Louisville get away. Seven-point margins shrank to a single possession of separation. Her playmaking tested by Louisville's defense, Lexy Kresl instead carried her team by scoring 15 first-half points. Struggling to hit shots, Jen Reese still collected 14 rebounds. Slowed by fouls, Arielle Roberson took over the scoring reins from Kresl in the second half.
Just once all season had Colorado played in front of a crowd of more than 3,500, and that against a New Mexico team that lacked the assets to give its fans much reason to make noise in that game. A win Saturday would have been a nice way to enter the holiday break. A win in an NCAA tournament regional, perhaps in a place like Louisville, is the real prize. And that seems no less likely for Colorado now than it did Saturday morning.
"You don't know how to play in this sort of atmosphere until you do it," Lappe said. "This is better than anything we will see in conference, or just as good. So I think having the confidence that, OK, 9,800 fans, we know what that looks like now and we know how to play in it. You know that you have to withstand runs and the crowd getting fired up and then you've got to make them be quiet. That was one thing, I don't know that we ever did that at the right times. …
"[The players] know how they feel -- they know that there were a lot of mistakes in the game but we know we played together, we know we fought."