The Louisville women's basketball team is 9-1, ranked in the top 10 in the nation and has beaten three ranked teams. But they suffered back-to-back losses in early December.
On Dec. 1, the then-No. 4 Cardinals gave up a 14-point lead and fell 69-64 at No. 7 Kentucky. It was a painful loss not only because it was UofL's archival but because the Cardinals had such a substantial lead and appeared to be in control for much of the game.
As much as that loss hurt, it was a temporary frustration compared to the loss on Tuesday, Dec. 3. Just a few minutes after the opening tip, UofL lost starting senior forward Antonita Slaughter for the season during a terrifying episode at the end of the bench.
After checking out of the game, Slaughter collapsed on the bench shortly thereafter, convulsing near the court as medical personnel rushed to her aid.
Teammates stood stunned as team doctors and trainers stabilized Slaughter's body and quickly wheeled her off on a stretcher and went straight to the hospital.
After three days of testing, it was determined that Slaughter's traumatic experience was linked to a heart condition and that she had a blood clot in her lung. Slaughter, now on blood thinners, will miss the rest of the season and possibly won't play any more college basketball.
Coach Jeff Walz explained Friday: "After extensive testing, they have determined she had a cardiac event, which caused the episode. In the process of determining the problem with her heart they found a blood clot in her lung. We're very fortunate this was discovered through testing. She will start on blood thinners immediately that will put an end to her season."
Slaughter had started the first nine games of the season and was averaging 9.3 points per game with 13 three-pointers. Her spot in the starting lineup will be taken by senior Tia Gibbs, but losing a veteran shooter like Slaughter is a big blow to Louisville's chances of making another run to the Final Four. The Cardinals lost starting center Sherrone Vails to season-ending knee surgery before the season began.
Walz said before he thinks of the damage done to his lineup, his first priority is Slaughter's health.
"Our No. 1 concern is to make sure Antonita is taken care of," he said. "Her teammates have been very concerned for her and are saddened that Antonita will no longer be able to finish out the season."
Though the Cardinals have never experienced anything quite like Slaughter's collapse, Walz's program is very familiar with playing through injuries. The Cardinals made a run to the NCAA championship game last season without three likely starters: Gibbs, forward Asia Taylor and power forward Shawnta' Dyer.
The Cardinals beat Missouri State 91-49 after Slaughter left the arena and clobbered Wright State 99-40 Saturday with Slaughter in attendance on the bench.
"You know what, it was a big boost when Antonita Slaughter got released from the hospital," Walz said Saturday. "She came to our shoot-around and actually spent the night in the dorms last night. For our kids to be able to see her was a big boost for them. It has been a long week, there is no question about it. It has been a long week for our players. There was a lot of uncertainty of what was going on. It is something I hope I never have to experience again and something I hope my players never have to see again. A teammate is lying there unresponsive and her eyes are fixed. It was extremely scary."
Said Taylor: "Well, it is definitely a sad thing that that happened. We're all going to miss her, of course, but we all know the season goes on. She is there at practice and everything, being her normal self. It is good to have her around. Our goal is still to go to Nashville no matter what."
Nashville is the site of the 2014 Women's Final Four.
After each game, the team tagged their Facebook, twitter and Instagram posts with the hashtag #Win4Nita, which includes her jersey number and nickname.
For her part, Antonita seems to be taking it well.
"Woke up this morning thankful to be alive," she tweeted recently.
And another tweet: "Sometimes The Lord throws diversity at us to test our faith and in that we must persevere in order to grow stronger! I know that he's got big plans for me! I have such a great support system in my family, friends and teammates! Thank you all for the prayers."
WALZ MAINTAINS HIS STANCE ON UK
Walz wants to beat archival Kentucky - badly. But he also has continued to say that his focus is on preparing his team for March, not playing Kentucky in December. After his team missed a dozen shots in the paint and turned the ball over 24 times, Walz chose to focus on improving those stats instead of wallowing in a loss to his team's archrival.
"No other way to say it, we (gave) it away," he said. "Am I going to sit here and be all down and depressed? I hate to break it to you ... but no, I'm not. We play on Tuesday. We've got practice tomorrow and are back in the gym. Are we going to learn from it? Yeah, there's no question about it. We had our opportunities and you've got to take advantage of those."
Walz's comments didn't make much news when his teams were beating Kentucky, but after losses to the Wildcats the last two seasons, those same comments were picked apart by opposing fans and frustrated Louisville fans.
"I could see the pain in our locker room after the game from all! " Walz tweeted. "(We) hate to lose but must build on the positives and learn from mistakes."
Both coaches agree that the game should always be played.
"It is an electric atmosphere here; it's an electric atmosphere over there," Walz said. "It is tremendous for women's college basketball that in the Commonwealth of Kentucky two of the best teams in the country are 60 miles apart.... It's a good time for women's basketball in the Commonwealth of Kentucky."
Walz said he was proud of his team's perseverance after the win over Missouri State. After his team beat Wright State by 59, he said the performance was unexpected.
"No, I did not (expect a 59-point win). I did not at all," he said. "This is a ballclub that just beat N.C. State, James Madison and played Middle (Tennessee) to a seven-point game. I'm tickled with this. This is not what I expected at all."