The game clock had barely struck zero following Louisville’s stunning victory over reigning women’s basketball national champion Baylor a week ago when Cardinals Coach Jeff Walz’s cell phone began blinking repeatedly as his text message and e-mail queues swelled.
Friends, family and peers were eager to congratulate Walz on orchestrating what has become perhaps the most recognized upset in NCAA women’s tournament history. Louisville, a No. 5 seed, dispatched the prohibitive favorite to repeat, 82-81, in the round of 16. The Lady Bears entered 34-1, with their only setback by two points to Stanford, also a No. 1 seed, in mid-November.
Louisville followed that landmark victory by beating second-seeded Tennessee to advance to the Final Four for the second time in four years under Walz. The Cardinals (28-8) will play fourth-seeded California (32-3) Sunday night at 6:30 followed by top-seeded Connecticut (33-4) against Big East rival Notre Dame (35-1), also a No. 1 seed.
“After our Baylor win, we went into the press room, and they’re all asking me how long are you going to enjoy this, and I said, ‘For a lifetime,’ ” Walz said by telephone from New Orleans, site of this year’s Final Four. “I said, ‘We’re going to talk about this the rest of the day, tomorrow, the next day, next week, next year.’ I’ve been doing this for 18 years now and really just come to the conclusion life’s too short. You have to enjoy your moments.”
The loss also ended the record-setting college career of 2012 national player of the year Brittney Griner. The 6-foot-8 center in many ways transcended the sport by elbowing onto highlight shows sometimes ahead of her male counterparts, so legions of Walz’s former players reached out to issue an electronic pat on the back as well.
Among those was Laura Harper, a member of Maryland’s 2006 championship team who played for Walz when he was a top assistant under Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese. Harper and Walz had such a close relationship that during the meeting six years ago informing players he would be leaving for Louisville, Harper was nearly inconsolable.
Also in the room was Crystal Langhorne, the Terrapins’ career leading scorer and rebounder, but the Washington Mystics forward-center recalled putting a comical spin on the situation.
“Laura Harper went crazy and fell on the floor crying, and we were all looking at her like you messed up the moment being so overdramatic. Haha,” Langhorne wrote in an e-mail from Russia, where she plays with Dynamo Moscow in the Euroleague while the WNBA is in its offseason.
Walz received unflinching support from players while at Maryland by balancing a collegial personality with a demand for excellence when it came to execution on the court. Regarded as a master strategist by former charges such as Langhorne, Walz was instrumental in helping Maryland topple Duke in overtime to win its first and only NCAA title.
The most memorable shot from that 78-85 triumph at TD Garden in Boston was Terrapins then-freshman guard Kristi Toliver’s three-pointer at the end of regulation, and the Los Angeles Sparks all-star and WNBA most improved player used social media to salute her former coach.
“I wake up to a Baylor loss?!? Only coach Walz man . . .” Toliver, who also plays overseas during the WNBA offseason, wrote on her Twitter feed.
Last season for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, Walz came back to College Park for the first time since taking over at Louisville, which is roughly 90 minutes from his family in his native Kentucky. The Cardinals beat Michigan State in the first round and lost to Maryland two days later, 72-68.
The subplot surrounding that second game included a perceived rift between Walz and Frese that hastened his departure, but in the many years since they worked together, both coaches indicated they have moved on from those circumstances and are focused on the present.
“Jeff obviously was a key part to our success when he was here at Maryland,” Frese said. “We had a lot of fun and did a lot of good things. It’s great to be able to see him get back to his home state of Kentucky where he’s doing great things there.”
Among Walz’s accomplishments in nearly six full seasons at Louisville includes leading the Cardinals to the national championship game in 2009. He became the second coach in NCAA history to take a team to the NCAA final after only two seasons, and Louisville also set the school record for wins by going 34-5.
In his first season, Walz directed the Cardinals to their first appearance in the round of 16. Louisville finished with its highest national ranking, and Walz was named rookie head coach of the year.
“I’ve said it over and over, and I’ll still say it again: Brenda was great to work for.’ It was a great experience while I was there,” Walz said. “The players knew I wasn’t leaving just because I wanted to leave. I took a job as a head coach at a BCS program. You just can’t pass that up. My goal was to be a head coach. That’s what I wanted to do.”