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December 23, 2013

Walz's commandment: Shoot before you turn it over

Nothing has to be said. The players stop whatever they were doing, jog to the baseline and get ready to run.

After the Cardinals coughed up 24 turnovers in a 69-64 loss at No. 5 Kentucky on Dec. 1, Louisville coach Jeff Walz made the team run a wind sprint each time they turn the ball over in practice. Walz's turnover mandate has been in place so long that at a practice last week, turnovers were met with immediate running.

Walz has consistently preached one commandment since arriving at Louisville: Shoot before you turn it over. And this season if you don't? You run.

"We are definitely valuing the ball," senior guard Shoni Schimmel said. "… We didn't realize how much we turned the ball over until we started running every single time. So the first thing is to value the ball, and we need to continue to keep bringing it over from practice to the game. It is definitely helping us take care of it."

Walz's method may not be fun, but it is working. Since Louisville's lone loss, the Cardinals have averaged 12 turnovers per game in five straight wins. Prior to Saturday's 69-62 win over No. 11 Colorado, UofL beat the previous four foes by margins of 42, 59, 55 and 38 points.

Against the Buffaloes, the Cardinals had nine first-half turnovers before Walz got after them at halftime. They turned the ball over just twice in the second half and pulled away from Colorado when the game was on the line.

"I think we're doing a great job of taking care of the basketball," Walz said. "Very uncharacteristic of us actually to have our post players have seven of them. So I'm really pleased with how our guards played and are taking care of the ball. I really don't think you'll see it again where Asia (Taylor) and Sara (Hammond) have four and three turnovers apiece. It's not them. So I was really pleased with how well we took care of the ball."

NEW, AGGRESSIVE SHONI
The biggest change Saturday was in star guard Shoni Schimmel. Known for flashy passing and splashing threes, she has always had a penchant for tossing one into the stands from time to time. But Saturday she was stellar, scoring 30 points with seven rebounds, three assists and just one turnover.

"To me it is all about time and score," Walz said. "There was no situation in tonight's game where she threw an off-the-ear pass or a behind-the-back pass because it wasn't there. Where two years ago, she may have thrown one or tried to make a big play. She has really grown as a player and understanding the flow of the game and what's going on. I am really happy for what a good teammate she has become."

The senior All-American candidate was more aggressive going to the basket, and Colorado continued to foul her nearly every time she drove. Schimmel hit 13 of 16 free throws, and Walz said he believes it was her best performance of the season.

"I thought it was," he said. "Like I said on the radio, she took more free throws today, in one game, then she had the entire season. And we've been talking to her about being more aggressive, about you've got to take the ball to the basket, not always pulling up for jump shots. And she did that tonight. She's a very good free-throw shooter. I thought she did a nice job of distributing the ball and taking care of it. She didn't force a lot. She may have had one or two shots that weren't probably ideal. But besides that I thought the rest of the shots she took were within the offense."

Said Schimmel: "He has definitely been pushing on me this whole season, and being a senior I'm growing up and learning more about the game. I just need to continue to do this and help my team by knocking down big free throws."

Saturday's win was not just the latest example that Walz's harping on turnovers is working, it was also a resume builder for the Cardinals. Colorado was picked to finish third in the Pac-12 behind Final Four contenders Stanford and Cal, the team UofL beat to advance to last season's national title game. UofL now has wins over No. 11 Colorado, No. 12 LSU, No. 20 Oklahoma and No. 24 Florida State.

"We're 4-1 against Top 25 teams," Walz said. "You know, I'm really proud of how this team has battled, how we've fought. We still have room to improve. There's no question about it. That's a very good Colorado team. Linda (Lappe) does a great job with them. They're very well coached and they compete."

Sad Schimmel: "Going 4-1 against Top 25 teams is definitely a good thing for us, but I think we have a lot to learn from them. Especially through those five games, we learn from it. We are getting ready to go into conference play, and for us to learn from these past few months and continue to carry it over, it is only going to help us continue to grow and get better going into March."

Added junior guard Bria Smith: "I think that just like Shoni said, (playing a tough schedule) has us more mentally ready for what we are going to get into, for conference play, and March as well. It is just good for us, and allows us to learn things that we need to work on."

AMERICAN SLATE
The road ahead is going to be interesting for the Cardinals. The American Athletic Conference is not as tough as the old Big East because such top teams as Notre Dame, Georgetown and Syracuse are gone, but the AAC is top-heavy, with unanimous No. 1 Connecticut still undefeated.

"We are going into a conference now that is very competitive," Walz said. "You might not see a lot of teams in the Top 25, but when you look at RPI and where they're all sitting, we have a lot that are ranked between 50 and 26. So you have to show up every night and play.

"We're going to play a very talented SMU team in here on the 29th. And then after that we go up to Temple, which they are playing very well right now. They just got beat at Syracuse by four. We get our butts kicked when we go up there and play, so I know how hard it is up there. UConn right now is the only other team ranked in the Top 25. But South Florida - who has had a few injuries and I know those kids will be back by the time of conference play - Rutgers is very talented, Cincinnati just beat Ohio State by 13 the other night, and Ohio State played Maryland to about a six- or seven-point game. So that's the one thing about this league, you can't just show up and think you're going to win because they're not ranked. There are some well coached teams and some talented players."

UofL is currently 12-1 and likely will be favored in its next 11 games until it faces Connecticut on Feb. 9. The UofL record for most wins before picking up a second loss is 2008-09's 19-1 start.

ANTONITA UPDATE
After collapsing on the bench at the beginning of December, senior guard Antonita Slaughter has been undergoing tests and evaluations ever since. On blood thinners and other medication to treat a heart condition, Slaughter is not medically cleared to travel with the team or play for the remainder of the season.

On Saturday, Slaughter was on the bench cheering on her team. She appeared to be in good spirits.


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