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Louisville's Emmonnie Henderson follows her field of dreams

In just 11.3 minutes per game last season, Louisville's Emmonnie Henderson averaged 5.8 points and 4.0 rebounds. Louisville Athletics

As would be expected of a teacher watching a former student, Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz enjoyed a measure of appreciation that went beyond patriotism when he watched Angel McCoughtry win a gold medal with the United States in the 2012 Olympics.

He understood McCoughtry's talent but also the obstacles along the way that stood between her and that medal stand. Mentor and protégé, but in other ways almost partners in building a program, the path she followed helped place Louisville among college basketball's elite. To be part of that journey is a feeling few know.

So what was Walz supposed to say when rising junior forward Emmonnie Henderson stood at that same trailhead?

Even if the basketball team stood to be the payer, rather than the beneficiary, of this Olympic dream.

"It would have been better for our basketball team for her to play basketball rather than strictly focus on track and field," Walz said. "But it's not just what is best for the team. You have to do what is best for the student-athlete. In this case, for Emmonnie to hopefully have that opportunity to throw in the Olympics, she needed not to play basketball and focus on track and field."

An athletic, nimble post player with the promise, potential and experience to help Louisville think seriously about the short drive up Interstate 65 to the Final Four in Indianapolis, Henderson instead hasn't played a minute of basketball this season. It remains to be seen if she will again. After two seasons as a dual-sport athlete for whom basketball took up the bulk of her time, she is this year solely a thrower competing in shot put and discus for the Cardinals and thinking of NCAA titles and even Olympic trials.

Rio de Janeiro seems more than a stone's throw from the Ohio River, but she can throw a stone pretty far.

"Track and field has been my first love," Henderson said. "But I think just because I've been doing basketball -- it has been my lifestyle, basketball, pretty much."

Henderson was there when Louisville lost to Dayton in an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game in Albany, New York, on March 28, 2015, the end of a grueling basketball season that stretched from the end of the previous summer. The loss was on a Saturday. By the following weekend, Henderson was hefting the shot at a meet in Gainesville, Florida. She finished seventh in that event and 13th in the discus.

Before that week, she hadn't thrown either object since early the previous summer. By May, Henderson finished first in discus at the ACC track & field outdoor championships. For good measure, she won the shot put title, too.

In June she finished third in discus at the NCAA outdoor track & field championships.

Then later that month, competing essentially as little more than a hobbyist against those full-timers who will this year compete for the right to represent the United States in the Olympics, she finished 14th in discus at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships.

"I feel pretty comfortable that Emmonnie has the capability to not only contend for NCAA championships ... I'm pretty confident that she has the ability to be in the top eight at the U.S. Olympic trials." Louisville track and field head coach Dale Cowper

The plan up until then was for Henderson to restart a familiar cycle again. She first started competing in the shot put and discus in middle school at the urging of a basketball coach who thought it would be a good use of her offseason. But she soon found herself anxiously looking ahead to track and field as basketball seasons rolled by, then experiencing sadness when the too-brief throwing sojourn ended each spring.

Throwing events aren't glamorous, often cast to the far reaches or auxiliary fields of sites and demanding both brute strength and precise technique. Like most track and field events, they are solitary endeavors disguised as team events. But something about them appealed.

"Being an only child, I see them as my sisters and everything," Henderson said of her basketball teammates. "But with track and field, I don't know, I just take to having control of my success and my outcomes better than I do with having a team, having to depend on other people for a certain goal. Not saying I can't, but I just like that lifestyle more. And then my track and field teammates, we're here and we do our thing and we laugh and stuff at practice and everything.

"But then after that, we go our separate ways, we don't have to live together, we don't have to do all this stuff together. It's a very different lifestyle. I like the track lifestyle a little bit more."

The catch was that she was always a really good basketball player. Even this past year, after a sophomore season as the seventh or eighth player in the Louisville rotation, she seemed on the verge of bigger things.

Some reserves play the kind of minutes Henderson played solely so that players who play the rest of the minutes can catch their breath on the bench. If those reserves do no harm, they do their job. That wasn't Henderson. She affected games when she was on the court, more often than not to the good of her team. Extrapolate her statistics out over a full game and she averaged 20.5 points, 14.3 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 2.1 assists per 40 minutes (she also averaged 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which goes some way further to explaining her limited cameos).

For a basketball team with only one player who had been part of the program for as many as two full seasons, Henderson would have been an asset.

"We were excited about what she was going to be able to bring to us as a junior," Walz said. "She had a chance to really continue to evolve her game. We were planning for her to work on her ballhandling, work on her 15-to-18 foot jump shot. She's a great rebounder already, can score in the low block with her strength and athleticism."

But those ACC throwing titles, followed by the national success, changed the picture. Louisville track and field head coach Dale Cowper, a former thrower himself, had worked with conference and even national champions during a decade at the school.

"I knew enough to know that of all the kids that have been on campus, she has more God-given ability than any of the others," Cowper said. "I don't mean that with any disrespect to those who came before her. ... When she won the ACC title in both the shot and the discus, that's where we can get after 10 weeks. Where we can get this year with a full year, that's something that is obviously really exciting."

"She had a chance to really continue to evolve her game. ... She's a great rebounder already, can score in the low block with her strength and athleticism." Louisville coach Jeff Walz on Emmonnie Henderson

It was always up to Henderson -- Cowper and Walz had worked together to recruit her when other schools wanted her to choose a sport. But when she decided she wanted to focus on track, Cowper found the scholarship and Walz lent his support.

Making it to Rio, still a big ask for someone so young and inexperienced, wasn't the sole reason. But it also isn't a goal to shy away from.

"I feel pretty comfortable that Emmonnie has the capability to not only contend for NCAA championships while she's in school, I'm pretty confident that she has the ability to be in the top eight at the U.S. Olympic trials," Cowper said. "In my experience in the past, whether it be at the junior level or the senior level ... if you belong in the final [eight], then anything can happen."

There are a lot of reasons the basketball team that began the season ranked No. 8 slipped out of the polls by Christmas. Not having Henderson wasn't the primary contributing factor, but it was part of it. Yet even before the young team hit its stride, rising back to No. 14 in the most recent Top 25 on the strength of an unbeaten ACC record, there were no regrets about turning loose a valuable asset.

It had to be about her.

"You talk about things in recruiting with parents and the recruits," Walz said. "And to know that we backed it up and were sincere in what we told her, and we stuck to it, it's a great feeling."

As it will be again if he turns on the television one of these years and watches the program's second Olympian compete.