- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- From the moment Shoni Schimmel arrived, Louisville was always going to follow her lead. She was too talented, too much a force of nature on a basketball court for things to unfold any other way.
It just wasn't clear whether that path would lead the Cardinals to a national championship game or out of the picture, like one of the junior's high-risk passes sailing past a befuddled teammate on its way toward the fourth row of seats.
"Coming in, the coaches told me have your hands up at all times because you never know when she's going to pass the ball," sophomore Sara Hammond recalled of her own indoctrination to the Schimmel experience. "So my first practice, I had my hands up the whole time, and she threw a behind-the-head no-look pass to me and it went straight through my hands."
On Tuesday night, Schimmel will be throwing those passes against UConn in the season's final game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), the leading scorer on a team 40 minutes away from a championship. Louisville's usual bag of tricks will have its limits against Connecticut. The junk defenses and mad-scientist mojo that Louisville coach Jeff Walz has used to reach the championship game in two of the past five seasons? UConn's Geno Auriemma has seen it all during the course of so many Big East encounters. The defense that shut down Brittney Griner in the Sweet 16? The Cardinals won't have the luxury of focusing on one or two offensive standouts against an opponent with Breanna Stewart, Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
What the Cards will have is Schimmel, the guard who has the talent to single-handedly take over any game, even one as big as this -- and who no longer believes she has to do so for her team to win.
She led Louisville in scoring for the second season in a row, put up 22 points against Baylor in the Sweet 16 and 24 points against Tennessee in the Elite Eight. But that's not how she led the team to this game.
"I think the biggest thing is my leadership," Schimmel said. "I think I've grown a lot there, coming out here and taking [the reins] on this and kind of running with it. I think our team has put in a lot of work to get where they are right now. Everybody's done what they needed to do."
To determine the exact point in time at which Louisville became something more than just another team headed for a short postseason, go back to halftime of a February game against Villanova. Go back to a time when Schimmel wasn't the court, benched for the entire second half of a close road game with significant seeding implications for the conference tournament.
Walz talks often about living with some of those passes Schimmel tries, giving her the freedom to be herself on the court. For her part, Schimmel said again Monday the coach doesn't try to rein her in. But a point was made that day.
She can be unique. She can't be alone.
"The Villanova game was just an opportunity [for Schimmel] to be able to sit back and see some things," Walz said. "I just want to make sure everybody understands we do things for a reason. And Shoni's been great for our program. I mean, she does a great job; she can play. But what happened was after that game, I think she really took the next step in leadership and understanding it's not just about scoring points, it's about the relationships you build.
"Which, in turn, is one of the big reasons we're here today, because we have a group of players in here who believe in each other."
If this sounds vaguely familiar for Louisville, it should. When Walz arrived for his first college head-coaching job, he inherited a player named Angel McCoughtry, who had some of the most sublime skills and surliest body language imaginable. The only thing more difficult than playing against McCoughtry, it sometimes seemed, was playing with her. Walz embraced her, worked through some of her eccentricities, and simply accepted others. A great individual talent became the centerpiece of a special team that made it all the way to the 2009 national championship game before running into Connecticut. Here we are again.
"He's amazing at X's and O's, and very unconventional, and doesn't do things the way everybody else does them," associate coach Stephanie Norman said of Walz. "But his best attribute, I think, is finding a way to take players that maybe sometimes either people are fearful of or don't know how to manage their uniqueness and make them maximize that to be as great as they can."
Schimmel and McCoughtry have distinctly different games and equally opposite personalities -- it's difficult to picture McCoughtry grinning and talking about playing to have fun half as many times in a season as Schimmel did Monday. But they are identical in what motivates them. Schimmel isn't motivated by her own numbers. Not unless they keep stats in moments like the Wiffle ball games the team played on the eve of the NCAA tournament.
"She'll run Jude over to make a catch," Norman said in reference to Shoni's younger sister and teammate with the Cardinals. "She'll be at shortstop and she'll run over to second base and basically plow someone over so she can catch it. She gets literally ticked off if her team doesn't win Wiffle ball."
She wants to win. Throughout her life, the best way to make that happen has been for her to have the ball.
None of it changes the way Schimmel plays, certainly not in time for Tuesday's game and probably not for a senior season that will begin with All-American expectations. She can still improve. Once phobic about contact in the lane, according to assistant coaches, she is attacking more in the NCAA tournament -- as a shot against Brittney Griner that will live on as the postseason's iconic moment attests. If Schimmel gets to the free throw line more (she's attempted 68 this season, but nearly a quarter came in the past five games), opponents won't be able to play her solely for the outside shot. She won't have to take 25-footers instead of the regulation 3-pointer.
But of course, she still will from time to time. The essence of Schimmel's game -- the good, the bad and the spectacular -- isn't going to change. She isn't going to be a 45 percent shooter with a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. There will always be an element of risk, and next year's freshmen will still be warned to keep their hands up and their head on a swivel.
"It's never fun having a turnover," Schimmel said. "I'm a big assist person; I like to give my teammates the ball. I would definitely say I was a pass-first point guard, but I'm not really a point guard anymore so that doesn't really help me anymore. I'd rather have assists than turnovers, and sometimes it bothers me when I have a lot.
"I just try not to let it bug me because we're just playing basketball."
After a tough first half for Schimmel in the semifinal against Cal, coaches worried that it might be Villanova all over again, that her mounting frustration might lead her to try to do it all herself.
Instead, she hit half of her six shots after halftime and added three assists without a turnover. She led by letting Hammond, Antonita Slaughter and Bria Smith win the game.
"I don't think ever in her life before it ever had to be about the team, because she's been able to sort of conquer the mountains and climb them all without really having to rely on anybody else," Norman said. "Now, for the first time, I think she's feeling comfortable relying on other people and having confidence in them."
15dBonnie D. Ford