- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Two players smiled as they walked off the basketball court Tuesday night. One had her head bowed toward the court, the grin a rueful lament. The other bounded joyfully toward the pep band to celebrate.
Those smiles said everything.
Playing on an opponent's home court in front of 14,002 fans, when the last digit felt like the number of people cheering for the visitors, fourth-seeded Maryland beat third-seeded Louisville 76-73. Trailing by 10 points with less than a minute to play, Louisville had a shot, literally, to send the game to overtime and again stun the tournament.
Alyssa Thomas is going to the Final Four. Shoni Schimmel is going to live on in memories for a long time.
Thomas is a three-time All-American who has already scored more points than any man or woman to wear a Maryland uniform and whose final rebound on this night tied her for the same honor on that count. Schimmel is the second-leading scorer in Louisville history and the second player to lead the women's team to the national championship game.
But Tuesday's regional final didn't just pair two of the best players in college basketball. It paired two players who are, if not without equal, then without comparison. And they were incomparable.
"It's a wonderful story," Maryland associate coach Tina Langley said. "It's two players that are playing phenomenal basketball at tournament time, which is what you want to see. You want the best for both of them because they work so hard, and it's great for women's basketball."
There is nobody quite like Thomas. Not that she is better than her peers -- though plenty of people with ties to College Park will suggest she is -- but she gets to the top of the mountain by a different route. She is a small forward who can play point guard. Or maybe it's the other way around. She is a rebounder and a distributor, a shooter and a driver.
And she needed Tuesday's win to avoid becoming another entry on the lengthy list of great players who never reached a Final Four. She played the single biggest role in doing so with 22 points, 13 rebounds and three steals.
"That was always the one thing people said she didn't have," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "It's only poetic justice when you talk about everything she has meant to this team and this program to have your senior year unfold this way."
Schimmel nearly took it from her in the most improbable manner, because that is what she does. That the improbable is always possible might, in fact, be the only certainty when it comes to the guard who made her way from a Native American reservation in Oregon to the biggest stage in women's basketball.
Thomas struck first, Louisville somehow managing to lose complete track of her before the game was 20 seconds old and leaving her all alone to hit a jumper in the corner that opened the scoring. The Terrapins followed the senior's lead and jumped on the Cardinals in a way that neither Iowa on its court in the second round nor No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 had come close to approximating.
She started the sequence that led to Louisville's first field goal by whipping a behind-the-back pass from the corner to Asia Taylor on the block. She arced a 3-pointer high over the outstretched hand of a closing defender and held her follow through as she backpedaled down the court. She drove the ball in transition, halted momentum by dribbling behind her back and popped a midrange jumper. She had 14 points, four assists and four steals in the first half alone and missed just four shots, propelling the Cardinals to the lead.
There were a lot of reasons for what happened in the second half as that Louisville lead withered and vanished. The Cardinals were careless with the basketball and too often tried to make one-on-one plays instead of executing the offense. But the Terrapins did their part, too, starting with a renewed focus on the one player hurting them the most.
"The big thing we did is we didn't give her many open looks -- until late," Frese said. "Our emergency switches were so good. Alicia [DeVaughn] manned so much of that in the middle. But we were really, I thought, locked in on the defensive end to really making her have to struggle. I thought we were really locked in on their penetrations to their kicks."
Through it all, Thomas never let herself be drawn into a game of top this. She let the game come to her. She had nine points and six rebounds in the first half and 13 points and seven rebounds in the second. After Louisville extended its lead to as many as seven points early in the second half, she helped launch a run for her team. She tipped a loose ball to herself and took off on an end-to-end dash. She backed down her defender and hit a turnaround jumper with a little less than 14 minutes to play to put her team back in front, where it would remain.
And when Katie Rutan was draining 3-pointers in the first half or Lexie Brown was driving to the basket for layups or free throws en route to 20 points, she simply ducked down low in case there were rebounds to be had. It would have been easy for a senior so desperate to get to Nashville to force the issues, but that isn't her game. Not now.
"I think the biggest thing is her having to trust her teammates," Frese said of Thomas' maturation through the years and through this final season. "When you talk about the impact our three freshmen have had this season and kind of being patient with them to let them grow to get to this point, she's always had to shoulder so much. I think it's got to be a hard element to have to juggle -- when to take over and when to trust what's taking place on the floor."
She did the former when it was needed in the second half against Tennessee. She did the latter all night Tuesday.
"I think I finally understand a happy medium," Thomas said. "I think now I just let the game come to me."
That isn't Schimmel, never has been and never will be. She was much more efficient in her play as a senior, but she was always going to play her game -- as Louisville coach Jeff Walz allowed her to do. And with her team down 10 points after Thomas hit two free throws with 56 seconds to play, there was only time to take it to the game.
She hit one 3-pointer with 30 seconds left, then another with 18 seconds left, each one deeper than the last. Still it seemed too little too late. Then she hit a third 3-pointer in that final minute with five seconds to play, and with the crowd now believing that something amazing was possible as long as she had the ball in her hands -- that the improbable was possible -- Louisville got one more chance when Thomas made 1 of 2 free throws with three seconds left.
The play worked to perfection, a long inbounds to Taylor, who turned and hit a streaking Schimmel just in front of the Louisville bench. She wanted the shot, perhaps too much she said. It arced toward the basket, hit the rim and bounded away.
And she smiled. Because that's what you do when you play a game, even one that hurt like this one hurt.
"She's just loved it ever since day one," younger sister Jude Schimmel said. "It's kind of brought a different light to her life. That's definitely her No. 1 love and it always will be. It just brings a lot of happiness to her, and it's a great thing. It's a positive thing. It's all a plus. She's going to go on to the WNBA, and her college career, especially here at [Louisville], is going to go down as one of the greatest careers in college basketball."
That joy for the game is as much a part of Schimmel's game as her range or her handle. She plays joyfully, freely. Of course she smiled as she walked off the court, even as her eyes left little doubt as to the pain she felt as she sat in front of her locker some time later, surrounded by cameras and microphones and talked about a last shot that she knows she will replay in her mind time and again.
We don't often see that same joy from Thomas, not outwardly. Her game is ferocity, an unreadable state occasionally replaced by a scowl but rarely a smile. But she did smile after the game, smiled as she gave high fives to the band and smiled as she sat and answered questions with the recently felled net hanging around her neck.
For as differently as she goes about, she plays for the same reason as Schimmel.
"I love doing this," Thomas said. "I love enjoying these moments with my teammates and just being on these stages like this."
Asked how she hopes her college career is remembered, Schimmel gave the only answer that made any sense.
"I hope people don't ever forget me as Shoni Schimmel," she said.
They won't. They won't forget Alyssa Thomas, either. That should have been true regardless of Tuesday's outcome.
It is certainly true as she heads for Nashville.
15dBonnie D. Ford