Louisville at ease under the radar

BERKELEY -- In this wild and weird season, Louisville has been quietly going about its business.

There has been no drama, no inexplicable losses, no star power turning the spotlight in any one individual's direction. Just a lot of winning.

The 10th-ranked Cardinals earned their latest victory Sunday, closing out play before the holiday break with a 70-57 win over No. 24 Cal. And after a handful of top-10 teams lost this past week, they have nowhere to go but up in the national rankings.

"Nobody probably expected us to be 11-1 heading into the Christmas break," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said, "and I'm very proud of this team."

Walz -- who is starting two freshmen after graduating four players from last season's team, including three who were drafted into the WNBA -- is at peace with being under the radar in a roller-coaster season that has seen some of the nation's best teams take unexpected knocks.

Instead, the Cardinals' only loss was to in-state rival Kentucky and the résumé now includes two top-25 wins (Iowa and Cal). Still, while both are quality victories, neither will suddenly turn Louisville in a conversation topic.

"That's fine with us," Walz said.

The Cardinals are carving out a new identity after losing a player that defined the entire era of a program. Shoni Schimmel was a go-to talent, the kind of player who would turn a game.

Walz said he now has a handful of those. And it changes from game-to-game. Take, for example, freshman forward Myisha Hines-Allen. She was Louisville's leading scorer coming into Sunday's game at 14.5 points a game. Against Cal, she played 12 minutes and finished with four points. Instead, the Cardinals got a big game from senior Sara Hammond, with 18 points and nine rebounds, and Shawntá Dyer came off the bench to score 12 points.

Instead of crumbling when Cal cut their lead to two points in the second half after they'd led by as many as 11, the Cardinals buckled down and pulled away down the stretch, blunting the Bears' momentum surges with timely baskets.

"When we face adversity we can't just fold," Hammond said. "We have some young players who aren't used to that. We tell them, 'It's OK; now it's our turn.'"

In the end, four Louisville players scored in double figures and the Cardinals had 17 assists on 27 field goals.

"We have to go with what works for us," Walz said. "We don't have that star, we don't have the kind of player that's going to drop 20 on you every night. But we have maybe six players that could get 20 on a given night. And we are going to be excited for each other when that happens."

Jude Schimmel, who has been "Shoni's younger sister" during her first three seasons, has come into her own this year. And she has become the Cardinals' leader in the backcourt, along with senior Bria Smith.

"I have challenged Jude, she would tell you," Walz said. "We've had a few games where she misses a couple of shots and hangs her head. Today, she made her first 3[-pointer], but she missed her second one and she kept at it. She's the smallest player on the floor and she had nine boards today."

Schimmel said her new-found maturity has more to do with her own growth than her sister's departure.

"My role has changed whether my sister is here or not," said Jude, who finished the day with 11 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. "My coaches and teammates trust me with the ball and to knock down shots."

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said she believes Louisville is better than expected.

"They have two freshmen playing a ton of minutes and role players who are playing their roles very well," Gottlieb said. "And the way Jeff coaches, changing up defenses, he gives his team a great shot to win every night."

Hammond said she believes the Cardinals have a chance to be a "special" team.

"This first part of the season has shown how much we've grown and matured. We have been working on our team chemistry," she said. "And it's more mental than physical. We came west, Cal is a Top 25 team and we played well. Mentally, we were in it for 40 minutes."