Louisville, KY -- And just like that, 2015 has come to a close. After a rough start to the 2015-2016 season, the Louisville Cardinals are ringing in the new year with five straight wins behind them and a tough conference schedule in front of them.
The Cardinals entered the 2015-2016 with high expectations. Despite losing eight veterans and lacking senior leadership, the Cardinals scored the top-ranked recruiting class along with two junior transfers.
It was hoped that the star-studded freshmen five - Asia Durr, Taja Cole, Sam Fuehring, Erin DeGrate and Brianna Jones - and the explosive transfer Briahanna Jackson, would combat the lack of senior leadership. However, the Cardinals endured some serious growing pains before closing 2015 with five consecutive wins.
"We have improved." Assistant Coach Samantha Williams said, "I think the thing we're struggling with right now is our defense. We're letting opponents shoot close to 50%. I think it's 47% or something like that, and that's just not going to win you very many ball games, especially in the ACC.
"We're trying to get this team to really buy in and really take pride in defending right now."
Louisville began the season ranked eighth in both the AP and USA Today Polls. However, a loss to a tall and talented California team in the season opener knocked the Cardinals back to reality.
The Cardinals dropped the following game to in-state foe, Western Kentucky University, before flying south to Estero, Florida for the Gulf Coast Showcase.
The trip to Estero seemed to be a turning point for the Cardinals. Louisville continued to struggle only picking up one win against Marist before falling to both Purdue and Dayton.
Despite going 1-2 in the showcase, the trip seemed to solidify the team. Louisville sophomore Myisha Hines-Allen stepped up her game on both sides of the court. Hines-Allen was named to the Gulf Coast Showcase All-Tournament Team after averaging 18 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Louisville finished November 1-4 and unranked. The Cardinals were averaging an underwhelming 66.2 points while allowing opponents to put up a solid 68 points. Louisville allowed opponents to shoot 46.4% from the field while posting an unimpressive 37.3% field goal percentage.
Maryia Moore, Myisha Hines-Allen and Briahanna Jackson averaged double figures, but their combined effort was not enough. The Cardinals needed defensive stops to get wins. Louisville struggled to find their identity. The team could not establish a clear leader.
"Initially, early on it was Briahanna Jackson." Coach Williams said of team leadership, "But I think right now what you're seeing is the big three with her [Jackson], Myisha Hines-Allen and Mariya Moore. They have really stepped up to the plate and have been the anchor of the team."
The Cardinals received a big lesson in humility after being ranked eighth to start the season and falling out of the rankings within weeks. It seemed the Cardinals had hit rock bottom. It was time to go back to the basics. And back to basics they went...
Louisville entered December with vengeance defeating then No. 19 Michigan State, 85-78. It seemed the Cardinals had finally clicked. Freshman Asia Durr and sophomore Mariya Moore led the Cardinals with 20 points apiece. Overall, Louisville had five players post double figures in the victory.
The Cardinals went 7-1 in December, losing only to in-state rival Kentucky. Louisville limited opponents to 63.8 points while posting 71.3 points. However, the Cardinals are still allowing opponents to shoot 45.3% from the field.
"We're just going to have to figure out how to guard." Coach Williams said, "We're not guarding the way we have in the past. I think that's been a staple of Coach Walz's teams in his nine years. We're trying to figure out how to make our opponents work harder on the offensive end.
"Once we get that I think we'll be able to do something but our biggest thing right now is defense."
Despite the inability to get stops, the Cardinals are working like a well-oiled machine on offense. The, "Big Three," sophomores Mariya Moore, Myisha Hines-Allen and junior Briahanna Jackson fuel the team.
Myisha Hines-Allen recorded consecutive double-doubles earning her the ACC Player of the Week on December 21st. Hines-Allen leads the team in scoring and rebounding putting up an impressive 15.4 points per game while grabbing 8.3 boards.
Hines-Allen is connecting on 53.7% from the field. It's no surprise that Hines-Allen ranks sixth in the ACC in scoring and third in rebounding- tied for seventh in offensive rebounds and second in defensive rebound. Hines-Allen is a definite threat on the court.
Mariya Moore leads the team in assists, lending a helping hand 55 times on the season. Moore continues to put up double figures for the Cardinals averaging 13.3 points while grabbing 4.1 rebounds.
Moore's ability to shoot the three is an integral part of her game. She is connecting on 29 of 79 for 36.7%. However, according to Coach Jeff Walz, her ability to read the floor is as well as, if not better, than players he has coached in his 20 years.
Coach Williams praised Mariya Moore, "What Mariya Moore is doing assist wise right now is remarkable. She really sees the floor, as well as anybody I've coached and, I've been at a few places. I think she's really stepped up just being a playmaker for our team."
Briahanna Jackson is arguably the best player on the team. This girl breaks ankles. Jackson's ability to handle the ball is unreal. Jackson's posting a remarkable 14.9 points per game, shooting above 39% from both the field and the three-point line. She's ranked 10th in the ACC in scoring and eighth in three-point percentage. Jackson boasts 30 steals on the season putting her at sixth in the ACC and 41st in the nation.
Coach Williams also spoke highly of freshman Asia Durr, "And I think you're seeing Asia Durr also get healthy and get confident. You know, she's never been hurt before, so I think you're seeing her step up to the plate."
An 8-5 start may not have been the goal for Louisville during non-conference play, but the Cardinals have much to be proud of finishing the year with five consecutive wins.
Louisville opens ACC play on New Year's Day against No. 10 Florida State.