Shoni Schimmel’s gritty attitude fuels Louisville

Associated Press photo by DAVE MARTIN -- Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel passes the ball during practice Saturday in the New Orleans Arena. Show caption
Associated Press photo by DAVE MARTIN -- Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel passes the ball during practice Saturday in the New Orleans Arena.

NEW ORLEANS — It’s a Shoni Schimmel highlight that’s been viewed tens of thousands of times, dating to Louisville’s historic upset last weekend of top-seeded Baylor.

Schimmel approached halfcourt on a fast break, trying to avoid Brittney Griner, the most dominating player in women’s college basketball. Schimmel dribbled behind her back to the left, creating several feet of space away from her massive defender. Griner, though, quickly recovered, meeting her near the rim.

That’s where Schimmel leaped with the ball in her right hand, switching it to her left as she shielded it from Griner with her back before flipping a shot off the glass.

“I mess around in practice sometimes doing it, and it worked out for me,” Schimmel recalled Saturday of her Sweet 16 heroics, moments she hopes to mimic during Louisville’s (28-8) semifinal
Sunday against California (32-3) at the Women’s Final Four.

Schimmel’s layup went viral not as much because of her playground-like antics — local sportscasts and online videos are stuffed with highlights of her many crossovers and no-look passes. No, this moment was special because of how it inspired her teammates to defy challenges greater than themselves, even when they hover over your 5-foot-10 frame.

After the play, Schimmel rose from the floor and stared into the face — make that the
jersey — of her 6-8, Goliath-sized opponent.

California is next.

No wonder Louisville, making its second Final Four appearance in school history, is the lowest seed to reach the national semifinals since 2004.

To get here, Schimmel led Louisville in wins against Baylor (22 points) then Tennessee in the Elite Eight (24). She’s averaging a team-high 14.4 points and 3.5 assists this season, while making sure her teammates believe they are in New Orleans to win.

“Shoni Schimmel’s confidence makes them hard to beat,” ESPN analyst Kara Lawson said.

Schimmel, a junior, hails from the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, located in eastern Oregon. Her younger sister, Jude, is a sophomore guard at Louisville, averaging 5.6 points. According to the NCAA, less than a dozen Native Americans played women’s college basketball in 2011-12.

“It’s just a blessing,” the younger Schimmel said. “It’s not very often you get to play in the Final Four with your sister.”

Shoni’s attitude works well with a coach who prefers button-down shirts to suits on the sideline and jokes midgame with players after shooting air balls: “Do you think you could hit the rim on that next time, and at least get us a half a point?”

“She came in with flair; that’s what she does,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who recruited Schimmel. “She can make an unbelievable shot, an unbelievable pass. What she’s doing now is, she’s really starting to understand timing and score of games. When to make to make that behind-the-back pass, when to make that circus shot.”

At the right time, her teammates are able to take advantage. Against Baylor, Louisville made 16 of 25 3-pointers, an NCAA tournament record. Guard Antonita Slaughter had seven 3-pointers, while Schimmel added five.

“To have a deep bench means a lot,” Slaughter said. “Everyone contributes to the team, so that’s a great thing.”

Schimmel is ready to do her part.

Gary Estwick