LOUISVILLE, Ky .
There once was a basketball team that reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 despite losing two key players to injuries, only to face a Goliath-sized favorite once it got there. Practically no one gave that team a chance.
That team is the LSU Lady Tigers going into Sunday’s Louisville regional semifinal against the host Louisville Cardinals.
That team also was Louisville. In this round of the NCAA tournament. One year ago.
The Cardinals reached the Sweet 16 in 2013 only to find Baylor there, running a blockade square in their path. Baylor was the favorite not only to win that game but the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans and was led by Player of the Year Brittney Griner, one of the best ever in the women’s college game, who, if she tapped a few keys on Ancestry.com, would find Goliath lurking on an upper branch of her family tree.
If you like underdogs — and what red-blooded American sports fan doesn’t, unless it’s our team that’s the favorite? — it was an inspiring story.
A year later, it inspires the Lady Tigers still.
At 21-12, LSU is Louisville, Version 2.0. The Lady Tigers have eight available players after tournament-ending injuries to guards Raigyne Moncrief and Jeanne Kenney in their two NCAA wins to get this far, facing a team that clobbered them, 88-67, back in November. Louisville is only the No. 3 seed in this regional (LSU is No. 7), but the 32-4 Cardinals, winners of their first two NCAA games by an average of 38 points, look very much the part of a No. 1 — of a Final Four team.
And the Lady Tigers? The only worry they don’t have is meeting their insurance deductible. There’s a hot rumor in town that LSU coach Nikki Caldwell is running practices with players covered in bubble wrap. To pinch a line from the late, great sports journalist Dick Schaap, the Alamo looked sturdier.
But this is March, and there is madness in the air. And dreams. Dreams of cutting down nets and raising trophies and dropping banners.
College is a time to dream of whatever in the world you could possibly do with your life and of making things happen that your older, more jaded self will tell you are impossible or not worth trying.
It is within this delightful confluence of youthful exuberance and foolish daring that the NCAA tournaments exist. It’s the reason these are without question the best three weeks in American sports.
It’s the reason the Lady Tigers have that goofy, gap-toothed grin that Jim Carrey wore in “Dumb and Dumber.”
So you’re telling me there’s a chance.
“I don’t think anybody really expected us to actually come into the tournament and win our first two games,” LSU senior forward Theresa Plaisance said.
Why should they have? The Lady Tigers lost eight of their last 10 games entering NCAA play and were borderline fortunate to even get a bid. Were it not for the fact they’ve played the nation’s toughest schedule, the bubble wrap may have burst.
“Right now, our hope is alive,” Plaisance said. “We like playing against the odds. When you don’t have anybody on your side, there’s not much that can go wrong. It’s like a ‘What do we have to lose?’ kind of thing.”
Teams and athletes are forever playing the “Us against The World” card, but in this case, it’s worth something. Even Caldwell’s mother is probably taking Louisville and the points — the Cards are a 13-point favorite.
But Louisville coach Jeff Walz isn’t taking the bet. He knows LSU can pull this stunner. Logic says no way, but he saw this magic trick first-hand last year when his team tasered Baylor, 82-81.
His issue? Having his players mentally deal with going from being the David to the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team in a span of 12 months — and not losing like the Soviets did to the miracle boys from Team USA.
“I’ve already reminded” my players, Walz said. “You don’t have to worry about that. I know how talented they are. They’ve got a fantastic coaching staff, and they’ve got the troops rallied and they have been impressive to watch. They beat a very, very good West Virginia team without those two. If we lose, I promise you, it’s not because we overlooked them.”
If Louisville loses to LSU, it’s because fate tapped a shoulder and decided it must be so.
It probably won’t happen. It almost certainly can’t happen.
But I’m telling you there’s a chance.