The Louisville womens basketball team wasn't supposed to make the Final Four. The Sweet 16 was where the road was supposed to end for them.
After a very disappointing Big East tournament, in which the Cardinals were blown out 83-59 by Notre Dame, Louisville was a fifth seed, in the same bracket as Baylor winner of 32 consecutive games and the overwhelming favorite to repeat as NCAA champions.
Louisville had strong victories over Middle Tennessee State (74-49) and Purdue (76-63) in the first two rounds. That was on the Cardinals home court, though.
For the Sweet 16, the Cardinals had to travel to Oklahoma City to face Baylor and Brittney Griner, the 6-8 senior center who has become the greatest female post in NCAA history.
So when Louisville took the floor on Easter Sunday, the question was not whether Baylor would win, nor even how much the Bears would win by. Everyone wanted to know how many times Griner would dunk and how spectacular of a show she would put on.
One of the golden rules of show business, though, is that you do not perform with someone who can upstage you. And during this show, Griner met her match in Cardinals junior guard Shoni Schimmel.
Schimmel grew up on the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation before she and her family moved to Southeast Portland a few years ago. She learned basketball not in a gym, but on asphalt courts, playing against her older brother Shea.
Throughout her high school career at Hermiston High and then Franklin High, wherever Schimmel went, crowds followed to watch her behind-the-back passes, ball-handling skills and deep, deep range from beyond the 3-point line.
Schimmel was flashy enough that a documentary film, Off the Rez, was made about her.
But never has Schimmel been as brilliant as she was in the Sweet 16 against Baylor. Her skill was summed up with just under 10 minutes remaining in the second half, when she went one-on-one with Griner.
Schimmel pulled down a defensive rebound and pushed the ball up the court, out-running everyone except Griner.
As Schimmel neared the 3-point line, she saw that Griner was blocking the lane. Schmmel dribbled the ball behind her back without breaking stride. Griner recovered, though. As Schimmel went airborne, Griner leaped, extending to protect the hoop. Griner hit Schimmel on the arm, forcing Schimmel to adjust in mid-air and reverse her layup. Without so much as looking at the basket, Schimmel lofted the ball over Griner, off the backboard and through the hoop.
I didnt even think about it, Schimmel said Friday from New Orleans, as Louisville prepared for its Sunday Final Four game against California. I was just playing basketball and driving the ball to the hoop.
After the play, Schimmel fell to the ground. But she was on her feet again immediately and in Griners face, celebrating her triumph over arguably the most dominant player in the history of womens college basketball.
Whatever Schimmel said, though, will have to remain a mystery for now.
In the heat of the moment, I dont even remember what I said, she says.
Behind Schimmels magic, Louisville built a 17-point lead with 7 1/2 minutes remaining. Then the Cardinals' tough defense came back to haunt them. Three starters, including Schimmel, fouled out, with Schimmel leaving at the 4:21 mark.
Before she left the court, Schimmel found her younger sister, Jude Schimmel, a sophomore guard for the Cardinals.
Were not going to have another repeat of high school, Shoni told her sister, referring to the 2010 state quarterfinals, when Franklin lost a close game to Jesuit after Shoni fouled out in the fourth quarter.
Though talented, Jude has never received the same fanfare as her big sister. While Shoni was making behind-the-back passes, Jude was content to play a more conservative role throughout their high school years. Without Shoni in the game, though, and with Baylor storming back, Jude took it upon herself to help keep the Cardinals' season alive.
It was a moment for me to step up, Jude says. It was like when Shoni broke her foot my sophomore year (at Franklin). It was my time to step up. I was calm. I was ready. I knew what I needed to do for us to win. It was a team effort, of course, but I was a lot more confident and a lot more calm than I thought I would be.
Finally, on two late Cardinals free throws by Monique Reid, Louisville pulled off an 82-81 upset comparable to the greatest in sports history.
Shoni finished the game with 22 points, two assists and three steals. Jude had six points and three assists.
At the final buzzer, Jude was looking for one person Shoni.
She was the first one I looked for, the first one I ran to, the one I wanted to celebrate with, Jude says. Im glad I found her through the crowd.
As the sisters embraced, they knew that their work was not done.
Two days later, Louisville took the court in the Elite Eight against Tennessee, the New York Yankees of womens college basketball.
From the opening whistle, Louisville looked unstoppable. The Cardinals built a lead and kept it, heading into the home stretch ahead 62-47. Then the Volunteers started to rally. Tennessee allowed one basket over an eight-minute stretch and cut the Louisville lead to 68-65 with 4:28 remaining.
That was when the Schimmels took over.
Shoni started with a slicing layup through the lane. Jude hit a 3-pointer and threw a pass to Antonita Slaughter for a reverse layup. Then Shoni was on target with another layup.
It was just like a repeat of us playing together in high school. It was just at a different level," Jude says. "We were just playing basketball. Everyone was saying how the Schimmels took over the game. I didnt think of it like that at all. It was a whole team effort. "But, Shoni and I are the type of players who dont mind having to take over the game and being the ones who have to take the big shots. A lot of people thought it was something bigger than that, but really, it just felt natural.
Shoni wound up with 24 points and three assists. Jude totaled 15 points and three assists. Louisville came out on top 86-78.
It was amazing to be able to have Jude out on the court with me, Shoni says. She was a huge part of that win, and it was a great experience.
After the final buzzer, the sisters again searched for each other. They embraced for several minutes.
It was indescribable, Shoni says. She was the first person I looked for. She was the first person I found. Shes my sister, and for her to be there by my side while we both go through this is just amazing and indescribable.
"I couldnt even tell you what I was feeling then and there. Basically, we had made it.
Says Jude: It was a special moment for us because not many sisters get to share that moment. Its not very often that we hug each other for that long.
Louisville is only the second No. 5 seed to reach the Final Four, joining Southwest Missouri States 2001 team that featured Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history.
We took our bracket as a challenge in knowing that we had a tough journey ahead of us, Shoni says. We took it as well as anyone could have. It was a great accomplishment for not only us, but for our entire university.
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Shoni and Jude have had their family watching them. Their father, Rick Schimmel, and their mother, Ceci Moses, came to watch the first two games of the tournament in Louisville. All six of Shoni and Judes brothers and sisters were on hand during the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight.
Its a blessing, Jude says. Its not easy for them with their financial situation. But Im glad that they were able to make it out. My parents were the only ones who came to the first two rounds in Louisville, but I was really happy to have them there. They live so far away that we barely get to see them.
"The fact that they made it to Louisville and then that my siblings made it to Oklahoma with my parents, it was just crazy. Im really happy they got to come. It means a lot to Shoni and me.
Says Shoni: Its always good to have my family here. I was surprised that they actually made it to Oklahoma because I didnt think they would. For them to make it to Oklahoma was just so supportive.
"Even my parents coming out to Louisville for the first two games, it was just great to see them there and have them there.
"It felt like high school, a little bit. It felt normal. Like thats how it should be. It was so exciting to see all of them. I just love seeing them, because I hardly get to see them.
The Louisville-Cal game tips off Sunday at 3:30 p.m. PT.
Both Shoni and Jude say that the key to beating California will be limiting the Golden Bears' offensive rebounds and stopping them in transition.
Our biggest challenge is rebounding, Shoni says. Weve got to rebound and get up and down the court with them, because theyre a fast-paced, running team.
"We need to know the scouting report and be prepared. Our coaches do a great job of that, and we do a great job of listening and trusting and believing in them with the game plan that they give us. Were just going to go out and execute.
The winner will play either Notre Dame or Connecticut in the championship game on Tuesday night. Both of those teams have owned Louisville this season. On top of their 83-59 win in the Big East tourney, Notre Dame also beat Louisville 93-64. UConn beat Louisville 72-58 earlier in the season.
But Louisville is a very different team now.
We were in a funk for a while, Jude says. We really hadnt had a 40-minute game where everyone on our team has played well. We had games where one person would do well and then a couple of people would do well.
"But we had never really had a collective win up until the NCAA Tournament. Then it was like, If we lose, were done. We dont want to be done until we win the championship. We just have a fire in us right now, and no one has been able to stop us.
No matter what happens in the Final Four, the NCAA Tournament has been an incredible experience for both Shoni and Jude.
Its been crazy, Jude says. Really, Im just thankful to be a part of this, and Im really thankful for the way everything has gone down. Its just a blessing. Its a crazy experience, but its one that well remember for the rest of our lives.
Shoni and Jude are not content with just making the Final Four, though.
Theres nothing in the world I wouldnt give to win the national championship, Jude says. Weve already come this far, so theres no reason to let up. Im not able to settle for anything less. Theres no reason to settle. Not until you win.
It will be an uphill journey for the Cardinals in the Final Four. Then again, that journey was supposed to end in the Sweet 16.
We beat Baylor, Shoni says. We went out there and did it. Were still not done. Anything is possible at this point.