LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In 2005-06, when the Maryland women's basketball team won the national championship, coach Brenda Frese's top assistant was Jeff Walz, who proved an invaluable resource on the bench, in the locker room and on the recruiting trail. The two routinely discussed strategy, and in those sessions, Frese foresaw a bright future for her coaching disciple wherever his career led him.
Two seasons after helping the Terps to their first and only NCAA title, Walz moved on to become head coach at Louisville and in that time has catapulted the Cardinals onto the national stage with two appearances in the championship game. Included in Walz's Louisville resume is an 82-81 victory last season over reigning national champion Baylor in the regional semifinals that's considered among the most improbable upsets in the sport's history.
Tonight, Frese and Walz meet for a third time as adversaries in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight, but both coaches indicated the showdown will be more about the players than the teacher-mentor dynamic.
The fourth-seeded Terps advanced to their second regional final in three years by beating No. 1 seed Tennessee, 73-62, on Sunday afternoon. In the other regional semifinal, third-seeded Louisville defeated No. 7 seed LSU, 73-47.
"I knew when we worked together that he would be a star," Frese said of Walz. "We went through a lot, obviously, in our four years together. I can think back to our first season when we went down and played Duke and got drilled by them by 51 points, and four years later, we were standing on the podium to be able to win a national championship. That whole staff, including Jeff, was a very important part of our success, and it was a really fun time for us as a program."
Maryland and Louisville have split their two games since Walz left College Park. Two years ago, the Terps triumphed, 72-68, at Comcast Center in the second round. Guard Laurin Mincy, now a junior, led the way with 24 points and blocked a shot in the closing moments to help the Terps secure the win, but Louisville limited Alyssa Thomas to six points.
Thomas, who on Monday was named an All-American for a third straight time, is coming off a career-high 33 points and a team-high 13 rebounds against the Lady Vols. The senior forward either scored or assisted on 17 straight points in the second half in a performance that included 14-for-25 shooting, three assists and no turnovers.
"We hope she misses the bus," Walz said when asked about the Cardinals' defensive game plan against the three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year.
Thomas is Maryland's career scoring leader among both men and women and needs 14 rebounds to pass Crystal Langhorne for first in that category. She's also one of four players in NCAA history with at least six triple doubles in her career. Her 64 double doubles are a school record. Thomas, whose name and jersey number hang from the rafters at Comcast Center, needs three assists to move into fifth on Maryland's career list.
"She's a great player. We know that," Louisville senior forward Asia Taylor said. "Just from watching a lot of film on her, we're going to get all her tendencies down, what she likes to do. I don't think you can ever hold a great player scoreless, but you can do everything in your power to try make every bucket that they do score harder than the previous game."
Louisville enters its third regional final in five years having won 10 of the past 12 games. The Cardinals' only losses over that time have come against Connecticut, which is the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament and one of two undefeated teams.
Senior guard Shoni Schimmel leads Louisville in scoring (17.1 points per game) and is the second player in program history to have amassed 2,000 points in her career. Much like the Terps, Louisville has a deep roster that includes 11 players who average at least 12 minutes per game.
"We're probably going to look at some things from before, obviously, since they're bringing back basically the same team we played two years ago," Mincy said. "We're going to have to lock down defensively, especially on Shoni Schimmel, and rebounding is going to be definitely a key to us winning this game."