NEW ORLEANS — Louisville women’s basketball Coach Jeff Walz babbles with a rapid-fire stutter and promises to blaze away from the three-point line. His star player, Shoni Schimmel, is a round cherry bomb of a kid, with her bright red uniform and explosive, shredding play. Do the Cardinals have no sense of gravity nor decorum at this women’s NCAA Final Four? Apparently not. “Why not go out with a bang?” Schimmel said.
They have mowed down Baylor and Tennessee, and overcame a 10-point deficit against California to reach the national championship game, in which they face another colossus in U-Conn. They are the lowest-seeded team to reach a women’s final, yet their kids are as bonelessly loose as rag dolls. It’s an attitude they clearly adopt from Walz, who in the semifinals strolled the sideline casually in his open-necked red-checkered shirt, as if he were taking orders for veal chops in a cheap family-style restaurant — “an Italian tablecloth,” U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma called it.
Walz’s players begged to differ. They thought it looked more like he was going to a hay ride.
“It was definitely pink, not red,” Schimmel said.
“It looked like a picnic,” teammate Sheronne Vails said.
But Auriemma, who owns a restaurant, insisted it was a tablecloth, and further suggested he wanted to hire Walz as a busboy. To which Walz responded by suggesting he would resign and take Auriemma up on it, if he could have the head waiter’s job.
“As a women’s basketball coach, you go through times where you’re always wondering what are you gonna do when you’re finished,” Walz said. “. . . And now that I’ve got the opportunity to be a waiter in his restaurant, I don’t know what the hell else somebody wants in life. So my goal is to become the head waiter. Not just one that sits in the back. I want to be the best damn one he’s got. So I’m going to talk to him after the game tomorrow night and see when I can start.”
Walz has employed all kinds of antic remarks and mind games to keep his team in such a larkish giant-slaying mood. He has told them not to think, “just go play,” and assured them there is no such thing as a bad shot if it goes in the net. He has shown them documentary films of great sports upsets, and hoarsely recounted the Biblical story of David and Goliath, which they have so taken to heart that before each game they tell each other, “We just need five stones.”
He has given them T-shirts with “Party Crashers” emblazoned on the back.
“Let’s live it up and enjoy the moment,” he said. Before they went on the court in the semifinals, he told them, “Stop for a second at the end of the hallway and look around in the stands and see all the banners and all your fans. Just soak it in for a moment.”
No one personifies the Louisville looseness more than Schimmel, a hybrid guard whose rubbery facial expressions vacillate between a fierce scowl and wide lollipop of a smile. Schimmel, who is part Jewish and part Native American, spent her early childhood on the Umatilla tribal lands in Pendleton, Ore. She characterizes her style as “rez ball,” meaning pickup. She has scored in double figures in six straight games and eight of the last nine. But it’s not her numbers that command attention; it’s the captivating exhibitionism with which she plays, whether launching a moon ball of a shot, or hitting a blind reverse layup, or flicking a behind-the-back pass.
“I’ll make you one prediction,” Auriemma said. “At some point during the game Shoni Schimmel will make a shot that you think she’s closer to our basket than she is to theirs, because she does that all the time against us. She makes shots from ridiculous places against us.”
The saga of Schimmel and her younger sister and teammate Jude was chronicled in a documentary for the Discovery Channel, “Off The Rez.” Their mother, Ceci Moses Schimmel, was a promising athlete before she became pregnant at 15. Now a high school coach, she decided to break with family tradition and take her children away from Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and move to Portland.
Ceci told her daughters she wanted them to broaden their horizons and get away from the alcoholism, drop-out rates and low expectations that plague reservation life.
“People stay there because it’s comfortable,” Shoni said. “She wanted us to get out of our comfort zone.”
The Schimmels have played out all kinds of happy endings in this tournament. Last week, after more than two decades together and growing a family of eight children, Schimmel’s parents finally wed. Ceci and Rick Schimmel, a former baseball player at Stanford who is now a business consultant, had not gotten married primarily because a wedding was too expensive and they were too busy raising children to plan one. But they made a pact that if Louisville managed to upset Baylor, they would get married as a way of celebrating. On Easter Sunday, Louisville won, and the next day Ceci and Rick tied the knot at a courthouse in Oklahoma City.
It’s been a charmed couple of weeks for all of the Cardinals, who crave one more unlikely happy ending. Conventional wisdom says they will return to earth against the intimidating muscular defense of U-Conn. Surely their streak of hot shooting can’t continue — can it? Then again, no one thought they could repeat that awing performance against top-ranked Baylor and 6-foot-8 player of the year Brittney Griner, when they hit 16 three-pointers. Yet there went junior guard Antonita Slaughter, dropping in another half-dozen threes in the semifinal.
“We got a problem Tuesday night, because Louisville really thinks they’re the best team in the country right now,” Auriemma said. “After the way they’ve played and what they’ve done these last couple weeks, they probably think there’s nobody that can beat them.”
You might expect the Cardinals to demur, to say something modest, or cautious. But that’s not the way this team does things.
Said Schimmel: “We’ve been on this run, and we’re not coming down from it.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit www.washingtonpost.com/jenkins.