LOUISVILLE — In the 2005-06 season, when the Maryland women’s basketball team won the national championship, Coach Brenda Frese’s top assistant was Jeff Walz. He proved an invaluable resource on the bench, in the locker room and on the recruiting trail. The two routinely discussed strategy, and in those sessions, Frese foresaw a bright future for her coaching disciple wherever his career would lead.
Two seasons after helping the Terrapins to their first and only NCAA title, Walz moved on to become the head coach at Louisville. He has since catapulted the Cardinals onto the national stage with two appearances in the championship game. Included in Walz’s Louisville résuméis an 82-81 victory last season over reigning national champion Baylor in the region semifinals that is considered among the most improbable upsets in the sport’s history.
On Tuesday night, Frese and Walz meet for a third time as adversaries in the NCAA tournament’s round of eight in the Louisville Region, but both coaches indicated the showdown will be more about the players than the dynamic between teacher and mentor.
The fourth-seeded Terrapins advanced to their second region final in three years by beating No. 1 seed Tennessee, 73-62, on Sunday afternoon.
In the second region semifinal, third-seeded Louisville defeated No. 7 Louisiana State, 73-47.
“I knew when we worked together that he would be a star,” Frese said of Walz. “We went through a lot obviously in our four years together. I can think back to our first season when we went down and played Duke and got drilled by them by 51 points, and four years later we were standing on the podium to be able to win a national championship. That whole staff, including Jeff, was a very important part of our success, and it was a really fun time for us as a program.”
Maryland (27-6) and Louisville (33-4) have split their two games since Walz left College Park. Two years ago, the Terrapins triumphed, 72-68, at Comcast Center in the round of 32. Junior guard Laurin Mincy led the way with 24 points and blocked a shot in the closing moments to help the Terrapins secure the win, but Louisville was able to limit Alyssa Thomas to six points.
Thomas, who Monday was named an all-American for a third straight time, is coming off a career-high 33 points and a game-high 13 rebounds against the Lady Vols. The senior forward either scored or assisted on 17 straight points in the second half in a performance that included 14-for-25 shooting with three assists and no turnovers.
“We hope she misses the bus,” Walz said when asked about the Cardinals’ defensive game plan against the three-time ACC player of the year.
Thomas is Maryland’s career scoring leader, men or women, and needs 14 rebounds to pass Crystal Langhorne for first in that category. She’s also one of four players in NCAA history with at least six triple-doubles in her career. Her 64 double-doubles are a school record. Thomas, whose name and jersey number hang from the rafters at Comcast Center, needs five assists to move into fifth on Maryland’s career list.
“She’s a great player. We know that,” Louisville senior forward Asia Taylor said. “Just from watching a lot of film on her, we’re going to get all her tendencies down, what she likes to do. I don’t think you can ever hold a great player scoreless, but you can do everything in your power to try and make every bucket that they do score harder than the previous game.”
Louisville enters its third region final in five years having won three in a row and 10 of 12. The Cardinals’ only losses over that time have come against Connecticut, which is the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament and one of two undefeated teams in the country.
Senior guard Shoni Schimmel leads Louisville in scoring (17.1 points per game) and is the second player in program history to have amassed 2,000 points in her career. Much like the Terrapins, Louisville has a deep roster that includes 11 players who average at least 12 minutes per game.
“We’re probably going to look at some things from before obviously since they’re bringing back basically the same team we played two years ago,” Mincy said. “We’re going to have to lock down defensively, especially on Shoni Schimmel, and rebounding is going to be definitely a key to us winning this game.”