Louisville has been through the Big East wars and just produced what is probably the biggest upset of the opening weekend of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
The Cardinals believe that is just what they needed for the task at hand, which is slow down high-octane Gonzaga before a hostile crowd in their Sweet 16 matchup Saturday night in the Arena.
“Playing in the Big East we get a variety of teams to play against,” junior forward Monique Reid said. “I think we’re well-prepared for anything.”
“Them having the home court doesn’t really bother us,” freshman guard Shoni Shimmel said. “Against Xavier we just kind of did our thing and that’s what we’re going to do.”
More than 10,000 fans plus an ESPN audience will be watching when Gonzaga (30-4), the 11th seed in the Spokane Regional, meets No. 7 Louisville (22-12) at 6 p.m.
“We’re just going to try to do the best we can to contain them some,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “There’s no question in my mind it’s going to be a high-scoring game. It’s going to be in the 80’s. We scored 80 the past two games so we’re not against trying to get up and down the floor.”
That last game was 85-75 upset of second-seeded Xavier on the Musketeers’ home court where they hadn’t lost in 25 games. Among those games was a 71-59 win in late November.
“We had a lot of young players that were trying to understand the college game, understand the speed of the college game and also get a feel for playing together,” Walz said. “We have grown as a team. We’re taking care of the basketball better than we had early in the year and now we’re starting to rebound better.”
That fact isn’t lost on Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves.
“They play extremely hard,” he said. “Good guards; they have three or four players who can have a big 3-point shooting night, which I think really compliments Reid inside.”
The 6-foot-1 Reid leads the Cardinals with 15.9 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. Shimmel, who is 5-10, directs the offense, averaging 15 points and five assists. No other players score in double figures but five different guards have had double-figure games.
Shimmel is the one that orchestrated the upset of Xavier with six 3-pointers and 33 points.
“She really impressed me,” Gonzaga point guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “She has that confidence that players need to be successful. She can make the fancy pass but also score.”
What concerns Graves, whose team leads the nation in scoring at 86.3 points a game on 50 percent shooting, is the Louisville defense. The Cardinals allow 59.8 points on 39.5 percent shooting – and that’s in a league (Big East) that sent nine teams to the tournament with five in the Sweet 16.
“They switch up their defenses a lot and I think that could throw a team off because you can’t get honed in on one type of defense,” he said. “UCLA zoned us so after awhile we kind of figured that out a little bit.
“You never know where the trap is coming from, you never know if it’s going to be three-quarter court, half-court or low-post pressure.”
Xavier’s inside tandem of 6-6 Ta’Shia Phillips and 6-5 Amber Harris had just 17 shots in the upset.
“That’s doing a great job,” Graves said. “That’s game-planning well and executing it well.”
The Cardinals also know what they have to do.
“We will have to slow their point guard down because she controls the whole flow of the game and we don’t really want to go at their pace,” sophomore guard Tia Gibbs said. “But we like to push it.”
Vandersloot is the driving force for Gonzaga, averaging 19.4 points to go along with her nation-leading 10.3 assists.
Kayla Standish, a 6-2 junior, became the first Bulldog with 30 points in back-to-back games, which she accomplished on the biggest stage, to raise her average to 17.4. Junior wing Katelan Redmon adds 17 points and senior Janelle Bekkering 11.2. Redmon and Standish combine for 15 rebounds.
“They’re a really amazing team to watch,” Reid said. “They’re really fast and they have an amazing point guard who does a lot of special things. They have a lot of great role players. They’re just an overall great team.”