OKLAHOMA CITY — After the Louisville women knocked off No. 1 Baylor on Sunday, they were paid a locker room visit by Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. At the time, the Cardinals seemed more excited about that than advancing to the Elite Eight.
Playing Tennessee, they did everything possible to try and see Durant one more time before they left Oklahoma City, defeating the Lady Vols 86-78 Tuesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I never would have dreamed we would have been able to do this,” Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said. “All credit is due to these players.”
The Cardinals became the third Big East team to make this year’s Final Four.
It didn’t come easy.
After leading by almost 20 points, they saw their lead disappear as Meighan Simmons tried to bring Vols back by herself by knocking down long distance 3-pointers late in the contest.
Still, each time the Cardinals found a way to answer the call. From a Shoni Schimmel 3-pointer to back-to-back layups from Jude Schimmel and Antonita Slaughter.
That was all Louisville needed to rebuff the Vols and earn the program’s second trip to the Final Four and its first since 2009.
Shoni Schimmel led all scorers with 24 points. Jude Schimmel added 15 and Monique Reid added 12.
The Vols were paced by Taber Spani, who finished with 20 points. Kamiko Williams and Simmons each finished with 12.
“They just had a heck of a tournament,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said, speaking of her own team. “Obviously, disappointed for us. (The players) put their heart and soul in the whole year.”
The Cardinals picked up where they left off against Baylor. They were off and running from the opening tip. Shoni Schimmel and Sara Hammond had their shots going as they flew out to a 29-14 advantage with 5 minutes left in the first half.
Tennessee’s offense was completely broken. The Lady Vols were unable to run their offensive sets due to the Cardinals defensive pressure. The Vols appeared befuddled over what to do about it.
Louisville pushed its lead to 41-26 by the half.
The Cardinals beat Baylor by drilling 16-of-25 from behind the arc. However, they made only four in the first half against Tennessee and still led by 15.
Once Louisville started making its 3-pointers, the climb back into contention became much tougher for Tennessee.
Still, the Lady Vols cut a 19-point deficit to six by playing hard nosed defense, holding the Cardinals to one shot and getting to the free throw line.
As the fouls mounted against the Cardinals, so did the frustration. Bria Smith fouled out with 5:56 left in the game.
The Lady Vols cut the lead to three points and had a chance to tie the game on a Taber Spani 3-pointer with 4:06 remaining. It was off the mark and it turned out to be the only attempt Tennessee had to pull even.
Monique Reid was fouled getting the defensive rebound, knocked down both her free throws and pushed the lead back to five points.
The threat was over.
Smith applauded her coach.
“I think it starts with our leader,” she said. “He believes in us and we believe in him. After watching that ESPN documentary on N.C. State, it put fire in our eyes.”