Louisville was 6-7 this season against the RPI Top 50, had to upset No. 1 Baylor and Brittney Griner in the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, knocked off eight-time national champ Tennessee in the Elite Eight and trailed California by 10 in the second half of the NCAA semifinals before prevailing.
So there are a lot of reasons why starting junior center Sheronne Vails (Arundel), a 2010 All-Met, and the fifth-seeded Cardinals (29-8) were unlikely to have advanced to face top-seeded Connecticut (34-4) in New Orleans at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in the NCAA championship, a rematch of the 2009 final won by U-Conn.
Louisville, 0-12 against U-Conn since joining the Big East, is the lowest-seeded team to advance to the final since it was first played in 1982. To reach the championship, the Cardinals had to knock off a one seed, a pair of two seeds, a fourth seed (Purdue) and a 12th seed (Middle Tennessee).
“Sometimes it feels like just another game, but then you look around and see all the stuff and try to soak it in and realize where you are and enjoy the moment,” Vails said by phone from New Orleans on Monday evening as the team was en route to dinner.
It’s been one thrilling experience after another for the 6-foot-4 Vails, perhaps none moreso than going up against Griner and helping to limit her to no field goals in the first 24 minutes of an 82-81 win.
“Growing up, I’d seen her in AAU but never had the opportunity to play against her,” Vails said. “I’d always said I wanted to go up against her. We got the opportunity and I thought we did a very good job. I used my length. I know my wing span is just about as long as hers. I wondered if she’d seen anyone with arms as long as mine. And I kept a body on her at all times.”
After dinner Monday, the Cardinals planned to watch the men’s championship in their hotel lobby with other Louisville fans. The Cardinals beat Michigan, 82-76, in the men’s final, so if the women win tonight, Louisville would become just the second school to sweep both titles, joining Connecticut (2004).
U-Conn., which beat Louisville, 72-58, in their one meeting in the Big East this season, is vying for its eighth national women’s title, which would tie Tennessee for the most.
The Louisville men’s team, which played their final in Atlanta, wanted to attend the women’s final in New Orleans but will not be able to because it would be against NCAA rules for the team to make the trip at the school’s or coach’s expense, according to media reports.
“[The programs] share a great bond,” said Vails, who considers Cardinals sophomore center Zach Price like a brother.
Vails ranks seventh on Louisville’s all-time blocks list, with 111, and she had six blocks this season in a game, against Syracuse, one shy of her own school record. It’s a skill she honed with family at her Odenton home.
Her mother, Pearl, a former South Carolina State player, would run her through various drills to improve her timing and to help her identify the release points of shooters.
“I was always lanky, and my mom spent a lot of time with me in our garage,” Vails said. “Late nights. We had like a sticky ball that you stick your hand in. She would just toss it and I’d jump up and time it. She had different tricks for me because she was good at it as well.”
I asked Vails a series of high school-related questions that I had asked several of the local NCAA participants in recent weeks. Here are her responses:
Best high school basketball memory: “Winning the state championship [over Gaithersburg in Maryland 4A her senior year in 2010] because nobody thought that we were going to make it that far. Just like now. Nobody thought we would be where we are. Going into my senior year we’d lost [2009 All-Met] Simone Egwu, Ashley Davis, Ebonee Jones. We weren’t the same team we were the [previous] two years. I told Coach [Lee] Rogers at the beginning of my senior year that this team is going to make me a state champion. He said he’d be surprised. I could see it in the first day of practice and can see it to this day [with Louisville], the confidence and the work ethic and the trust that we all have in each other.” In the state final, Vails had 16 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks.
Favorite high school gym other than Arundel’s: “I would have to say it would be Old Mill just because of the amount of people that that game brought. Just the rivalry in itself. In the county championship my sophomore year we played Old Mill but it was in North County‘s gym. That’s when I went off. That’s when I started realizing I could block more than one shot in a row.” Vails had 30 points and 15 rebounds in that 78-51 win.
Favorite high school victory: “When we beat North Point my senior year [in the Maryland 4A East Region semifinals]. That was the best. Everyone thought we were going down. We kept turning the ball over and people were in foul trouble and nothing was going our way. Aleisha Henderson made a huge three for us and put us up one. That was the play of the game right there.”
Best player you faced in high school: “That would be my mama [Pearl]. My mom used to kick my butt every day [playing basketball] in the yard. She only made me better. My sister LaTavia played at Robert Morris and she used to bully me. And my other sister NaKisha didn’t play basketball but she thought she knew the game well enough to give me pointers.”
Best piece of basketball advice that you got in high school: “Not to get worried. Don’t worry about any pressure or anything. You’re just out there having fun playing the game of basketball. It stuck with me the most. I still think about it to this day. Don’t get frustrated by it. You’re having fun. Enjoy the moment. That came from my parents [Ronald and Pearl].”
High school loss that stung the most: “I would have to say when we lost to Eleanor Roosevelt in the state semifinals my junior year. That’s the year that we had that class with me and Simone and were supposed to be the two dominant big girls. That was the year we were supposed to win and for us not to get it really hurt but it gave us momentum going into my senior year, saying we have to win a championship before I graduate.”
Piece of advice for high school players: “The advice my parents gave me. Have fun with the sport. Don’t turn it into something that it’s not. And education. [Basketball] does not last forever and you always need something to fall back on. Grades first over anything. Get your scores and play ball. My parents made me finish all my homework before I touched a basketball. I couldn’t go out in the yard until all my schoolwork was finished.”
What you miss the most about high school basketball: “The distances [between] the schools. You don’t have to leave the state to go play an away game and just the bond that you build with your high school teammates. You move on and build bonds with other teams.”
Best thing about college basketball: “Your teammates become more your sisters, especially with me being nine hours driving away from home and only getting to talk to my parents and family on video chats or on the phone. So when I see them it’s great, but you really spend a lot of time with your teammates, your roommates. They’re who you’re going to keep up with once basketball is over.”
Worst thing about college basketball: “When you’ve got early-morning workouts in the summertime and you don’t have to get up for class. It’s the worst part but it’s also the best part because you know you’re getting better while everyone is sleeping. If you’re not a morning person, you’re going to be.”
What springs to mind when you hear the words March Madness: “Anything can happen. That’s where most of the craziest basketball occurs. That’s when teams peak.”