OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—Look out, Tennessee: The giant slayers of the NCAA women’s tournament are coming for you next.
After pulling off a stunning upset of top-ranked Baylor, fifth-seeded Louisville tried to put the euphoria behind them as soon as they woke up Monday, leaving behind dozens of congratulatory text messages and turning their focus toward taking down the eight-time national champions in the regional finals on Tuesday night.
“We know we’re going to have our hands full tomorrow night. We’re going to have to come out and play another great game,” Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said. “But why not? I mean, no one expected us to be here today anyway. So what do we have to lose? I mean, again, I don’t think the pressure is on us.”
These Lady Vols (27-7), even with their impressive pedigree and No. 2 seed, don’t have nearly the air of invincibility of Louisville’s last opponent. Tennessee hasn’t been to the Final Four since winning the national championship in 2008, and the Cardinals (27-8) played for the title more recently, in 2009.
With longtime assistant Holly Warlick taking over for coach Pat Summitt, who won more games than anyone else in the sport, many outside the program started the season without expecting to hear “Rocky Top” at the Final Four.
That didn’t sit well with the players in Knoxville.
“They’ve just had a chip on their shoulder all year, and we’ve played the underdog role. In the past, there’s not a lot of times Tennessee has been playing the underdog role, and this team needed that,” Warlick said. “They needed somebody to tell them, `Look, you’re not really good right now and you have to work,’ and so they did.”
An eye-opening loss at Chattanooga in the season opener brought a renewed focus, and Warlick has guided her squad through some rough patches to win the SEC regular-season title and get back to the regional finals for the 26th time.
“It’s unique at Tennessee. We’ve created a monster because it’s great to win SEC championships, but our fans and everybody, if you don’t go to the Final Four and win a national championship, you’ve just had an OK year,” she said. “Now, that’s crazy. And I know I was a part of helping build that, but that’s crazy.”
Louisville’s players tried to clear their heads over breakfast and with a morning walk, leaving Angel McCoughtry—the star of the team’s 2009 Final Four run—to handle the aftermath of the Baylor upset in a Twitter dispute with Robert Griffin III, the Bears’ former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. The Lady Bears had won 74 of 75 games, going 40-0 on their way to last season’s championship, and had been heavy favorites to repeat.
Warlick compared the loss to 1999, when Tennessee’s bid for a fourth straight national championship behind Chamique Holdsclaw was derailed by third-seeded Duke in the regional finals.
“I would not be truthful if I didn’t say I was glad Baylor is out of the tournament,” Warlick said, “but these young ladies have kept things in perspective. I think they understand what’s ahead of them and what they need to do. … We’re not going in with the attitude that we’re just going to roll over Louisville. No, we have to play and we have to play together.”
The Cardinals were hardly conventional in how they eliminated Baylor, making 16 of 25 3-pointers and using what Walz called a “claw and one” defense to bracket the 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner inside and still try to contest outside shots.
“I think the main thing was that we just believed that we could win,” said Shoni Schimmel, who hit five of the 3s and scored 22 points. “For us to go out there and execute a game plan, it just made it all come true. That’s what we need to do against Tennessee, too.”
Walz tried to take a humorous approach when it came to actual details of that game plan, saying the Cardinals would try to do even better from 3-point range or try for “layup, layup, layup” if the Lady Vols take the deep shots away.
Warlick didn’t want to get caught up in Walz’s confusing defensive schemes, which even get his own players mixed up sometimes. She’s counting on sophomore point guard Ariel Massengale to figure it out on the fly and get Tennessee in the right plays.
“We don’t want to slow our game up trying to figure out what Louisville’s defense is doing,” Warlick said. “We want to continue to attack.”
Whoever can execute best will get another momentous win and, for most of the players, a first trip to the Final Four.
“The sophomores and freshmen, we’ve never experienced this, so to come in here and experience this and knock off the best team in women’s basketball right now is a tremendous feeling, and I’ll remember this the rest of my life,” Louisville sophomore Sara Hammond said. “But we’re focusing our attention again on Tennessee because we haven’t made it to New Orleans yet and that’s our whole goal.”