Balmy weather this week.
But Myisha Hines-Allen hasn’t been out looking for signs of spring. She’s been looking for signs of March.
As in March Madness.
And THE favorite time for the year for Hines-Allen, a senior star on the University of Louisville women’s basketball team that is 28-2, with one regular season game left Sunday with Pittsburgh. (KFC Yum! Center, 2 p.m.)
The Cardinals are 13-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ranked No. 4 nationally — with a big shot at making a powerful run in the NCAA tournament.
“And I’m super excited,” says Hines-Allen, who says she’s been on the lookout for the one certain sign of tournament time — which Louisville coach Jeff Walz popped up with in practice on Wednesday.
“I know the NCAA is on the way when we start practicing situation basketball,” says Hines-Allen.
“Like in situations — what are you going to do? Because this is it.”
As in “This Is It,” in March, when every game could be a team’s last — or win and you’re still in. In those kinds of games, Hines-Allen knows there are always plenty of situations — crucial moments in the last minute.
“Say you’re down two points, and we have to take it full court. What play are we going to run?” says Hines-Allen, “Or, you’re up four and it’s their ball.”
One can almost hear Louisville’s seasoned senior ticking the seconds off in her head as the game winds down to the wire. “It’s trying to prepare us for the situation — like if we have no time outs, this is what you should do.”
Few teams execute “situation” plays better than Louisville, and few players may be more adept at making a pressure play than Louisville’s lone senior, Hines-Allen, who’s been through it all — and shined in almost every way over a stellar four-year career.
In coming weeks, she may find a moment to feel nostalgic about a college career racing to conclusion. But not more than a moment.
Hines-Allen was an All-Stater at Montclair High in New Jersey and a McDonald’s All-American. At UofL, she hit the hardwood running — and rebounding — and hasn’t looked back. Over four years, Hines-Allen has specialized in “double-double” numbers, clicking off games of more than 10 points and 10 rebounds.
She’s one of just two players in UofL history to have scored 1,000 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds. The other is Angel McCoughtry, now a star in the Women’s National Basketball Association.
But Hines-Allen is living in the moment. She loves college basketball — and thinks a collegian’s best times are the ones coming along right now. She says she and her teammates are determined to nail down the ACC championship, which would be Louisville’s first in the elite league, and the school’s first since a Conference USA championship in 2001.
Next up, Louisville will appear in the ACC tourney in Greensboro, N.C. (Feb. 24-March 4). An NCAA bid will certainly follow, with Louisville hoping to be awarded a top seed, and possibly two home games to begin the tourney.
“Everyone on this team, we’re trying to get to Columbus,” says Hines-Allen, alluding to the NCAA Women’s Final Four at Ohio State. “We already played there when we played Ohio State (a 95-90 Louisville win November), and we’re trying to get back there.”
Even well-tempered seniors can’t help looking ahead.
“We know it’s one game at a time, and we have the regular season to finish and the ACC tournament to play out,” she says. But her heart belongs to the NCAA tournament.
“We’ll have two games here, hopefully, then after that the regional in Lexington. Then after that we’d be in the Final Four. But our goal is to win a national championship.”
Ready … Set … Streak!
The preparation for that began months ago. And maybe explains the way seasons climax at the end for Hines-Allen.
“The freshmen get here in June, so June is really when you kick it off with the whole team, starting with training,” says Hines-Allen. “It’s tough times, because training isn’t fun — especially when you’re running long distances, running stairs, doing the stadium run.”
Teammate Asia Durr believes that’s when Hines-Allen assumed a leadership role.
“Especially this season,” says Durr. “Myisha is determined to go out with a bang, and you could tell that when we’d be out there on those hot summer days, running the football fields.”
Hines-Allen thinks the players drew close in preparing for the season.
“Certain things we do, you get to learn from each other and build off that,” says Hines-Allen. “It takes all 12 of us, and that’s why I think we had such a successful season this year — because we were able to get each other ready early.”
The Cardinals came out firing on all cylinders. Louisville took down No.5-ranked Ohio State in overtime, with Durr pouring in 47 points. In the overtime, Durr scored 13 of 15 of Louisville’s points, and Walz said it was because Durr’s teammates knew Durr was hot and made it team business to get her the ball.
The Cardinals then knocked off No. 24 Michigan and No. 10 Oregon, with an unbeaten streak building through December. The calendar turned over into league play in January, with Louisville beating No. 17 Duke, then whipping No. 2 Notre Dame 100-67 before a souped-up crowd in KFC Yum! Center.
The unbeaten streak reached 20 before Florida State finally laid the first loss on Louisville. Later, Louisville lost to No. 1 Connecticut, but bounced back winning, including stopping slow-go Virginia 51-39 Thursday night.
The unbeaten start to the season was the longest in UofL history — men’s or women’s basketball. Hines-Allen says it showed the team is capable of doing something special.
“We play hard every possession, and play for each other — and listen to the coaches,” she says.
Senior moves, senior moments
And make clutch plays in “situations.”
That’s a Myisha Hines-Allen specialty.
At Georgia Tech in December, Louisville found itself needing a game-winning basket — and Hines-Allen got it, though the play wasn’t drawn up for her.
“It was for Sam (junior center Sam Fuehring), but Georgia Tech did a good job guarding the play,” recalls Hines-Allen. “I knew I had to go get the ball and win the game.”
Which she did, flashing to the ball and completing the play — as called — with a drive to the basket to score.
“A senior move,” she says, with a laugh. “It’s something we do every day in practice, so when I had the opportunity, I capitalized on it.”
A game later, Hines-Allen helped Louisville win again with a blocked shot she turned into a fast-break score.
“But did you see the plays before?” Hines-Allen asked, self-deprecatingly. “The (North Carolina State) girl had come down and hit a jump shot in front of me, and Coach Walz said, ‘Myisha, you’ve got to step up and stop her.’ Then she did it again, and I told myself I was not about to lose the game.”
The third time was the charm, as Hines-Allen stepped out to block the shooters’ shot, grabbed the ball and raced the length of the floor to score a deciding bucket.
“A senior moment,” she says, shaking her head, and still smiling.
You just go get it
Though she’s a good scorer, it is rebounding that distinguishes Hines-Allen’s game.
“There’s not a lot of drills to teach someone to rebound, you’re just going to do it, or you’re not,” says the 6-2 forward, who is — even at that height — a little smaller than the top team’s inside players.
“It’s a relentless attitude to pursue the ball. You do have to have good footwork, but even if you’re a clumsy person, if you want to get a ball, you’ll go get it. You’ll find a way.”
And she does, often ripping a rebound from forest of arms. Or tipping a ball she can’t get her hands on, then going across the lane to grab it.
“Myisha hustles,” says Durr. “She plays so hard, and on every board you can see her go up and she just grabs it, ’cause it’s hers.”
Hines-Allen also savors the “situations,” when she hopes the game comes to her.
“It’s what you play for,” says Hines-Allen. “Everyone screaming, everyone watching you — especially if the ball is in your hands. The last couple seconds. It’s why you want to be an athlete.”
So when the coach turns to situation basketball in practice, Hines-Allen knows the game is afoot. Soon it’ll be seconds ticking down. Game on the line.
“And then,” she says, “if you are able to finish the moment out — your teammates come running over to you. Your coaches are excited. Your fans are excited. It’s one of the reasons, I think, why people play sports — to be in that moment.”
Hines-Allen and leading scorer Durr lead a very well-balanced Louisville team that has size, speed and depth at every position. Playmaking guard Arica Carter has held a hot hand recently, hitting 12 of 21 three-point attempts in the last four games.
Walz has been named one of 10 finalists for the 2018 Werner Ladder Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year. Walz has led Louisville to a school-best 28-2 record, and has averaged 26 wins a season through 11 years at Louisville. Two of his teams have finished runners-up in the NCAA tournament.
In its last five games, Louisville is averaging 11,000 fans a game. Tickets for Sunday’s home finale are $10.