- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the Baylor locker room, point guard Odyssey Sims, crying, clung to former Bears men's player Perry Jones III. He's now with the NBA's Thunder, so the Chesapeake Energy Arena is his home. But it felt like probably the worst place in the entire world to Sims.
Finally, Sims broke away from Jones and sat disconsolately at her locker. Next to her came the sound of wracking sobs from senior teammate Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden. A Baylor official, trying to comfort both distraught players said, "Take a deep breath. Just breathe."
Breathing was hard for everyone -- players, coaches, media and fans alike -- in the closing minutes of this insane, unpredictable, dramatic, thrill ride of a basketball game. Louisville, the No. 5 seed, took a huge lead with surreal 3-point shooting, lost it all, and then hit two free throws with 2.6 seconds left to knock off the defending national champions 82-81.
"I did all I can for my team," said junior point guard Sims, who finished with 29 points and gave Baylor its only lead of the game by making two free throws with 9 seconds remaining. "We were right there. Just couldn't finish it."
But who expected Baylor to be in the position of having to do that? Didn't most folks figure this regional semifinal to be just one more inevitable step to New Orleans for the Lady Bears?
Louisville's Monique Reid, a fifth-year senior, made the winning foul shots after having missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12 seconds left. Later, she grinned as her screaming, celebrating teammates watched highlights of the game on television in their locker room. Thunder star Kevin Durant, in attendance at the game, had stopped by to congratulate the Cardinals. Was all this really happening?
"We heard that the only way we were going to win is if Baylor's bus didn't show up," Reid said. "We didn't care about any of that. We believed in ourselves and what our coaches teach us.
"I've been to a Final Four before. I was thinking positive thoughts when I went to the line. I was glad I was in that position. I'm not even joking -- I was not nervous. I was more nervous on the one I missed before. It was short, so I knew what I'd done wrong. I was way more confident the second time."
Confidence was a huge part of how Louisville -- which made an astounding 16 of 25 3-pointers -- pulled this off. So was the fact that Cardinals coach Jeff Walz -- known as one of the top strategists in women's basketball -- had some time to prepare and implement a game plan for Baylor. Of course, a lot of coaches have tried to do that. Most have come up short.
While the Cardinals' shrieks of joy were the loudest after Sunday's upset, the second-loudest surely came from the other seven teams still in this tournament. Baylor was the overall No. 1 seed and the favorite -- if not prohibitive, at least heavy. Now, the door has opened for everyone else.
The Lady Bears went 40-0 last season and brought back all their starters. Other than a November loss to Stanford in Hawaii in which an injured Sims barely played, they had answered all challenges this season. They went undefeated in the Big 12 for a second year in a row, won the league tournament a fifth time and plowed through the first two NCAA rounds, winning by 42 and 38 points.
Louisville tied for third in the Big East and lost in the league tournament by 24 points to another NCAA No. 1 seed, Notre Dame.
So was this the biggest upset in the women's NCAA tournament history? Considering who was toppled -- Baylor had won 74 of its past 75 games and had an experienced squad led by superstar game-changer Brittney Griner -- and what was at stake, it's hard to say that any upset on the women's side has ever been bigger.
One that matches or at least rivals it is when then-No. 3 seed Duke shut down another senior superstar, Chamique Holdsclaw, in the 1999 Elite Eight and stopped top-seeded Tennessee's march to a fourth consecutive national championship.
Nobody saw that one coming. And nobody -- at least no one outside of Louisville's locker room -- predicted Sunday's shocker, either. Asked the day before how his team could compete with Baylor, Walz said he would try to sneak six players on the court and hope the officials wouldn't notice.
But Walz is known as a tremendous X's and O's coach. As an assistant, he was pivotal in helping Maryland win the 2006 national championship. As Louisville's head coach, he has already been to one Final Four, in 2009. Now he's a game away from another, but to get this chance took an epic performance.
Asked if this was the best-played game by any team he has ever had at Louisville, including the 2009 squad led by Angel McCoughtry, Walz said, "Absolutely. It's just a remarkable night by a remarkable group of young women.
"I told our kids before the game, 'We've got to turn this thing into a street ballgame. You've got to drive, kick for 3s, try to make it fun.' There was no pressure on us."
Another thing he said to the Cardinals is that it was "just a basketball game." That was in light of the gruesome leg injury suffered Sunday by their fellow student-athlete at Louisville, Kevin Ware.
Before they took the floor against Baylor, the Louisville women were following what was going on with the Cardinals' men in their Elite Eight game against Duke. They knew about what happened to Ware and how his upset teammates had still rallied to earn a Final Four berth.
"We're watching our men play, and Kevin has an injury -- he's obviously out for the year. Who knows how bad it is," Walz said. "I just told them, 'Go out there and give it everything you've got. But at the end of the day, it's just a basketball game.'"
It ended up being a great one, in fact. The Cardinals didn't just play hard and with moxie, they also executed very well what they wanted to do. Baylor and Griner have seen every defense imaginable, but Louisville was able to throw in some twists. Enough to hold Griner to 14 points on 4-of-10 shooting, which tied for the fourth- fewest field goals she has attempted in a game this season.
Reid called it a box-and-chase, as the Cardinals tried to keep defenders both in front and in back of Griner. They were very physical with her, and actually, a fair amount of that was let go by officials. Louisville's Antonita Slaughter -- who had 21 points -- said she stuck so close to Griner: "I think I could smell the toothpaste she used."
The Cardinals ended up with 24 fouls called against them, to 14 for Baylor. Louisville had three players foul out, but they never backed down.
"We see physical games every night," Griner said. "Most of the time, we get more calls. But, hey, you know, you just play through it."
Walz described the defense as, "Like 1-3 zone. I didn't want to get too set up in the box where we gave the wings anything they wanted. I kept telling my players every timeout, 'If they make 10 to 15 3s, they're going to beat us. I don't think they can make enough 3s to beat us.'"
Meanwhile, Louisville made enough 3-pointers to beat almost anybody. The Cardinals' prowess from behind the arc set the tone in the first half, after which they led 39-29.
As Baylor tried to rally in the second half, the Louisville bombs kept coming.
"Every 3 that they hit when we would cut the lead made it that much tougher," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "You keep thinking through the course of the game that they're going to start missing some. But they never did."
Well, actually the Cardinals did miss nine of them, and they also lost leading scorer Shoni Schimmel -- who had 22 points -- when she fouled out with 4:21 left. At that point, the Cardinals were up by 10 after having led by as much as 19.
Baylor, with its season on the line, rallied ferociously in the closing minutes. Things got intensely crazy, with both coaches howling at the officials and everyone in the arena on their feet.
When Sims made her free throws, it appeared that Louisville's amazing effort might be for naught, and that Baylor had escaped its scariest NCAA tournament game since its 2011 Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M.
But then Reid, who has battled injuries and is, according to Walz, playing at "maybe 50 percent," went in for a layup and was fouled by Griner. And this time, Reid -- who played 13 minutes Sunday and had six points -- sank them both. And sank Baylor.
Mulkey was furious with the officiating and said of the referees, "If they go past this round of officiating, it will be sad for the game."
Since the end of last year's national championship game, Mulkey had been looking forward to taking her team to her home state of Louisiana and the Final Four in New Orleans. Her emotions -- like those of her players -- were raw after the loss.
After Baylor's desperation heave, Sims collapsed on the court when the buzzer sounded. She and Griner fought through tears to try to speak in their news conference, then both slumped to the floor in the arena hallway. Then they headed back to a despondent Baylor locker room, Griner for the last time.
"There's nothing I can say to them tonight that's going to make them feel good," Mulkey said of her players. "You just try to help them get their composure and you protect them like a mother hen.
"Tough way to lose. It's hard to lose when it's your last game, but it's even harder the way the game ended."
For Louisville, though, it was one of the greatest games in program history.
"I've been telling them the entire year, if we can just get 40 minutes out of everybody," Walz said, "not playing great, just playing good, we could be special. I'm just so proud of them."
15dBonnie D. Ford