No. 11 Louisville thrives despite rash of injuries

GARY GRAVES AP Sports Writer Published:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Few teams can afford to lose one key player without damaging chemistry or competitiveness.

Louisville is down four and yet is two games better than this point last season minus two regulars. The No. 11 Cardinals (19-4, 7-2 Big East Conference) enter Saturday's home game against Pittsburgh aiming to extend their five-game winning streak before traveling to No. 2 Notre Dame on Monday night.

A reshuffled backcourt and several players' improvement have helped Louisville overcome the loss of forward Shawnta' Dyer to season-ending ACL and MCL tears in December and Monique Reid's three-game absence with a bone bruise. Senior forward Asia Taylor and redshirt junior guard Tia Gibbs have yet to play this season following hip surgeries.

Their absences haven't fazed the Cardinals, who continue showing resilience and cohesion.

"We kind of take the approach that it doesn't matter," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of the attitude from his current nine-player rotation. "We definitely miss the four that aren't playing, but our philosophy is the next one has to step up. We've been very fortunate the past two years to have players that have stepped their games up considerably and taken the challenge.

"But it's getting kind of old."

On the other hand, Walz is encouraged by Louisville's recent improvement in several areas. After reaching double figures in assists in just two of their first four Big East games, the Cardinals have registered 10 or more during their streak and are averaging nearly 16.

That statistic is one payoff from the backcourt switch eight games ago. Sophomore Bria Smith, who had been playing shooting guard, swapped spots with senior Shoni Schimmel to take over the point. Louisville is 7-1 during that stretch, with its only loss coming against then-No. 2 Connecticut (72-58) on Jan. 15.

Smith hasn't hit double figures in her past six games, but Walz is pleased with her 2.5 assists average over that span and hopeful that she can resume shooting 15-foot jumpers. What's important is that Smith is involving everyone in the offense, which also makes her happy.

"I have the ability to run that position," said Smith, who had a season-high four blocks in last Saturday's win over Georgetown. "If I can help the team out by running the point position, I'll do it."

While the role change has decreased Schimmel's assist total, she still leads the Cardinals with 3.5 per game along with 13.8 points. Meanwhile, the preseason All-Big East selection has increased her offensive production, highlighted by a career-high 38 points last week against South Florida.

Schimmel's averaging 17.4 points during the winning streak.

"I like it because I come off of screens better," she said. "It's different because I didn't use them that much, and it's different for opposing defenses because they were so used to seeing me play the point."

With the injuries to Dyer and Reid, juniors Sheronne Vails and Antonita Slaughter have improved their post presence. Vails, a 6-foot-4 center, has started the past 14 games.

The 6-1 Slaughter, listed as a guard but able to play both forward spots, has made perhaps the biggest improvement with 11 straight double-figure scoring efforts, including career highs of 22 points in two of the past three starts. That run has helped double her scoring average to 9.9 points this season, and her rebounds have risen, too.

Walz always believed Slaughter would grow from experience but said a "light just came on" this season that has made her play more aggressively. Slaughter said her upswing began with Louisville's 48-47 loss to rival Kentucky in December, where she tied a career high with nine first-half rebounds off the bench.

She's playing about 25 minutes per game -- 10 more than last season -- and the added time has helped boost confidence with her inside game.

"I think it's just working hard and doing what I'm supposed to do," said the Louisville native, who has added 10 pounds of muscle through weightlifting.

"We all have roles on the team and doing the best to our abilities to help the team out means everything. It's just doing all you can, doing your role and doing it well."

The Cardinals have executed that philosophy well offensively with balanced scoring. That has helped Louisville weather a waiting game over the statuses of Taylor and Gibbs, who received a medical hardship after a season-ending shoulder injury last year. Walz hopes that Reid (10.4 points) returns by the postseason but is relieved that the Cardinals have been able to fill the void.

Then again, they have a lot of experience with it.