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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Whenever Shoni Schimmel's career ends at Louisville, she'll not only have left her mark at the school on the court, but also off it.
Schimmel did her best to try to beat UConn on Monday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game. She scored 20 points, but had little help as no other Cardinals player reached double figures in the 72-52 defeat.
While the loss stung, Schimmel and her sister Jude know that they've done so much to help inspire Native Americans across the country.
Nearly everywhere the two have gone this season they've been treated like rock stars. Native Americans have traveled from near and far to watch them play. It culminated last Monday night in Shoni's last regular season home game when Louisville had a packed house against Connecticut in what the school billed Native American Appreciation Night. Native Americans from nearly 40 different states were part of the 22,000 fans that packed the arena.
"I don't think we ever thought it would be this big," Shoni Schimmel said. "When we younger we just had the dream of going off to college and playing basketball. It's a lot more than we thought it would be. For sure we want Native Americans to make it off the reservation."
Coach Jeff Walz has seen it firsthand the effect that Shoni and Jude have had.
"They have inspired Native Americans across the country and given them hope they can get off the reservation," Walz said. "They are 20- and 21-year old kids and they have taken the responsibility to inspire so many."
At Louisville's final home game, fans from as far away as Alaska waited nearly 4½ hours after the game to get an autograph from the pair and their Louisville teammates. Walz had told his team that no one would leave until every fan went home with an autograph.
"It is humbling," Shoni Schimmel said. "It's pretty awesome that people travel around the world to see us. Whether it's snow, sunshine or rain for them to come and watch us and be there and be so supportive it means a lot to us. We've been playing basketball since we're younger. To open the eyes of so many people to do what we're doing is great."
When they got to the Mohegan Sun for the American Athletic Conference tournament, the Mohegan Tribal Elders asked to meet them. The sisters were instrumental in the Cardinals reaching the title game. Shoni hit a pull-up jumper with 6 seconds left against South Florida in the semifinals to break a tie and then Jude stole the ball and hit two free throws to seal the win.
"Shoni and Jude are our champions," said Glenn Drapeau of the Ihanktonwan Nation, who performed at the half of the UConn game in Louisville. "They're champions of these indigenous Homelands of all of our relatives. All of our grandmothers, grandfathers, they're all feeling really good right now. It's a beautiful feeling."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has coached many great players who have transcended the game, has been impressed by Shoni Schimmel.
"I know what one person can do. To have a Native American who is bringing in a group of fans. That's something that I think she should be proud of and Louisville should be proud of. They've done a great job in helping everyone know what she's doing. The fact she can back it up as a player that means even more."
Shoni and Jude helped the Cardinals reach the national championship game last season, which they lost to Connecticut. Shoni will finish as the school's second all-time leading scorer. She knows that however her career ends up, she'll have made a difference.
"When we were kids our parents told us about different Native Americans like Notah Begay, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jim Thorpe. There weren't too many Native Americans who made it off the reservation. To know we're inspiring so many kids who now think they too can get off the reservation is really special."
Freelance writer J.J Hysell in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.
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