Cardinals, community embrace Shoni

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There shouldn't be enough time to think in complete sentences during the seconds it takes a ball to travel from a shooter's hand beyond the 3-point line to the rim. But there the sentences were after Louisville's Shoni Schimmel waited for the screen on the left wing -- just in front of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma -- took one dribble into the open space to her left and launched a shot with her team already leading in the opening minutes of Monday's game.

That looks good. This place is going to get loud if that goes in.

It did go in. It did get loud. Really loud.

What was remarkable about Monday wasn't that Shoni Schimmel made people in the arena believe this could be the night that an opponent finally found a way to beat the unbeatable Huskies. They might have believed that for a few minutes, early baskets raining down like a heavyweight fighter determined to either win by knockout or lose by the same in the first round. But then, Connecticut shook off the blows, steadied itself and answered with a 68-48 win worthy of the outright American Athletic Conference regular-season championship it clinched.

Schimmel finished with nine points, again unable to crack the code against one of the only teams left to beat. Four times she tried in the past 14 months. Four times the shots didn't fall.

What was remarkable was that 22,163 people cleared off their cars or waited out airlines after yet another blast of winter overnight in the Louisville area and then trudged over uncleared downtown sidewalks because they believe in her.

Native American fans. Louisville fans. Basketball fans.

Anyone who appreciates a good story, really.

"I know a lot of people were traveling, and a lot of people were coming here," Schimmel said. "And so, you know, it's great for them to travel across the country to watch a game that's on TV. It's very special to me because they are Native American, and they're coming out to just watch us. For them to do that, it's pretty cool."

On what Louisville billed as Native American Appreciation Night, timed to coincide with the senior ceremonies honoring Schimmel and three of her teammates, it was clear that much of the crowd had indeed come a long way for the experience.

In areas too dense to call pockets, fans held signs, some professionally printed and many more homemade, that identified the bearers with the Choctaw from Mississippi, Lac Courte Oreilles from Wisconsin, Winnebago from Nebraska, Oglala Lakota from South Dakota, Chippewa from Minnesota, Blackfeet from Montana and literally too many more to count. Even a small sampling of those already in place to watch warmups also turned up Native people from as far away as Alaska and North Dakota. One count put it at 40 states represented.

Some flew to Louisville, many more drove for hours climbing well into the teens.

First introduced to the Schimmel sisters by Jonathan Hock's "Off the Rez" documentary, Tracey Cayatineto traveled from her home in Gallup, N.M., to Louisville. Her first trip to see Schimmel on her home court wasn't without effort. Originally slated to fly into Indianapolis and make the two-hour drive south, she was stranded in Chicago by weather and forced to drive the rest of the way. That's an additional three hours under ideal conditions. Driving through a snowstorm that limited interstate traffic to about 20 miles per hour, the conditions were not ideal.

Cayatineto is a member of the Navajo Nation. That Schimmel is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla hardly mattered.

"Especially where I'm from, where people love basketball, they want to know Native basketball players are stars, and they want to know about them," Cayatineto said. "We all saw that documentary, and we wanted to follow them as much as possible to see where they go and show them support. We've been following her for five or six years now."

Others, like two teenagers from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, are just learning about the Native American kid who launches shots from NBA range and throws no-look passes for one of the best teams in the country. They only became aware of Schimmel a year ago, thanks to her now-famous shot against Brittney Griner in the NCAA tournament, but they, too, were already in their seats when Schimmel took the court an hour before the game.

Already a veteran by the time Schimmel arrived four seasons ago, sixth-year guard Tia Gibbs took Schimmel under her wing as the latter tried to fit a freestyling, swashbuckling game into the college structure. But, like the rest of the players at Louisville, being around first Shoni and then younger sister Jude also opened Gibbs' eyes to a new world.

"We're witnessing something that hasn't been done in women's basketball," Gibbs said. "We go anywhere in the country, and we've got more fans in red than the other team has on their home floor. I think it goes to show Shoni and Jude's character. They're special people, and what they're doing for the whole Native American culture is very special. And they're kind of showing them what can be done, just if you jump out on a leap of faith.

"That's what Shoni and Jude did."

The scale of the spectacle was new Monday, but the scene was not. When Louisville played at Oklahoma earlier this season, thousands of fans, mostly Native Americans, waited for autographs after the game. A game at Memphis a couple of weeks ago drew twice the normal crowd for that school and another long line of autograph seekers after the game.

But this isn't just about Schimmel's Native American heritage. She isn't someone for one community alone.

Kentucky lieutenant governor Jerry Abramson and his wife have been season-ticket holders for nine years, by his count. The former mayor of Louisville, he held that office when the KFC Yum! Center was built with the understanding that both the men's and women's teams would play there. It might behoove him politically to be seen in the front row, but if he isn't a true fan, he sure sounded like it while watching an introductory video Monday that reached its crescendo with Schimmel's shot against Griner and Baylor.

"There you go," Abramson yelled. "Over Griner, over Griner! What a shot."

Schimmel's greatest social impact comes in representing Native Americans too rarely seen on such sporting stages, but at least here, Monday night was equally a chance for the entire Louisville community to celebrate someone who has become one of their own.

"She has created a relationship between this team and this fan base that I have not seen," Abramson said. "I've never seen anything like it. It harkens back to Darrell Griffith, harkens back to Wes Unseld. It's that kind of fervor. People see her on campus, at the shopping center, at the restaurant with the other girls. Everybody knows her."

This wasn't Schimmel's night on the court. Connecticut's Moriah Jefferson again made it difficult for her to get any open looks beyond that first one that brought the crowd to full voice. It wasn't Louisville's night, either. The Cardinals defended as if they thought Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was still out with mono, leaving Connecticut's best shooter wide open for early 3-point looks. They struggled to keep the Huskies off the boards, especially when Auriemma went big with Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart and Kiah Stokes on the court together.

But it was still Schimmel's night, the last one she is guaranteed to have on this court, even if more games are likely in the NCAA tournament. It was a night to celebrate who she is.

"She's one of those kids that, when she's got it going, when she's playing well, she's just fun to watch," Auriemma said. "And she makes plays a lot of kids can't make, and she makes shots most people wouldn't even take. It's been hard to guard her. Each and every year, it's gotten harder and harder. I think we've done a pretty good job on her the two times that we played her this year, but I don't know how long you can keep doing it.

"She's a pretty unique kid. I kind of like her."

A lot of people do.

Louisville made it clear that anyone in line for an autograph from Schimmel and her teammates after the game would leave with one. Walz told his players in advance to be ready to stay until midnight, if need be, to meet the demand. An hour after the game, the line stretched three-fourths of the way around the upper concourse, easily numbering in the thousands without a firm head count. At the very end of the line, an usher marveled at how patient everyone was, how people chatted amiably, sipped sodas and just waited.

Many of them waited a long time for someone like Schimmel to appear in the national spotlight. Waiting another hour or two to say hello wasn't much.

"Every place we go, there's a big following for them," Walz said. "What we're doing now, it's not just the basketball part of it."

Monday night wasn't really about the basketball part of what Shoni Schimmel means to college basketball, either.