Of all the factors she weighed in the recruiting process, Asia Taylor never thought a 36-year-old man dressed as a giant red bird would be what tipped the scales in Louisville's favor.
In the summer of 2008, Taylor was a rising senior at Whetstone High in Columbus, Ohio, on a Greyhound bus between Nashville and home. As she balanced summer workouts and AAU practice, Taylor also fielded calls from college coaches. Before her weekly trip from Nashville to Columbus to work out with a private coach, she chatted with Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who told her to watch for someone special on the side of the road when she passed Louisville's campus. Hours later, Taylor looked to her left as instructed and burst into laughter. There was Walz, Louisville's second-year coach, dressed as the Cardinal mascot dancing and "shaking his little feathered butt right by the interstate."
One of the best tacticians in the women's game, Walz is known for thinking outside the box. He's regarded as a terrific recruiter, and can rattle off a list of "different" things he's done to show a prospect he's invested in her life. Shortly after Louisville signed Shoni Schimmel in the spring of 2010, Walz traveled to Pendleton, Ore., where Schimmel had grown up on a Native American reservation, and slept in a teepee during the Pendleton Roundup, an annual rodeo that brings visitors from all over America to eastern Oregon.
"In recruiting, we're all trying to get the next best player. Everybody's got basketball, everyone's got nice facilities — you have to figure out a way to separate yourself," Walz said. "It was extremely hot that day, but I don't regret it. You've got to show players you will do what's necessary for them to fit in with your program, whatever it takes to make them comfortable. And you have to have a little personality."
"I'm on this bus with a whole bunch of people I don't know just dying laughing," Taylor recalled. "Everybody's looking at me like, 'What's going on?' and I'm just glued to the window screaming I'm laughing so hard. I knew right then, this is the place for me."
Five-and-a-half years later, Taylor is on the brink of her first Final Four. Tonight, third-seeded Louisville plays host to fourth-seeded Maryland with a trip to Nashville on the line.
A 6-foot-1 senior who averages 10.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, Taylor's defense will be crucial today when Louisville tries to slow Maryland's All-American forward Alyssa Thomas. Nicknamed "the female LeBron," Thomas can play inside and out and has a habit of dominating other teams (she averages 19 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists per game while shooting 51 percent from the field). Last year, Louisville pulled off arguably the biggest upset in women's tournament history when the Cardinals hit 16 threes and stunned Baylor and Brittney Griner, 82-81, in the Sweet 16.
But Taylor, who missed the season with a torn left hip labrum, could only watch from the sideline.
"It was so hard," she said. "Every time we were struggling, every time we needed a rebounder or defender, I was just sitting there thinking about how I could do that."
It's been an up-and-down career for the player Walz calls "our X-factor." During a game her senior year at Whetstone, Taylor went to step in front of a charging offensive player, but got tangled up and snapped her ankle, breaking two bones. She rehabbed for 10 months, returning in time to play 31 games as a freshman, starting 10. In hindsight, Taylor and Walz agree she should have redshirted because she wasn't completely healthy before taking the court.
Her sophomore and junior year, she emerged as an offensive rebounding specialist, a player whose speed could cause problems for bigger defenders. But throughout 2011-12, Taylor had a nagging pain in her left hip that she mostly ignored. When she finally saw a doctor, she discovered she had to have surgery, and another long rehab began.
Spending so much time in travel sweats can be torturous for an elite athlete. But now, Taylor looks back at last season as "a blessing."
"I know this: I was a completely different person in the summer," she said. "I was in the gym every day, working to get better. Last year, being on the sideline made me so hungry. We've made history this year with our record, and I get to say I was part of that."
Sitting next to Walz also helped her understand her coach's thought process and allowed her to study the game from a different angle. Now she often anticipates what the Cardinals need before Walz says it in a timeout and recognizes another team's defensive adjustments. Her contributions are consistent, too; her tournament averages (10 points, six rebounds) are in line with the regular season, though she knows tonight could be the time her defense needs to shine. After being a spectator at last year's Final Four, it's a challenge she happily accepts.
"With our men's team being out, we know our town and our state are counting on us," Taylor said. "They expect more of us. We know that pressure is on our backs but instead of weighing us down, we're letting it lift us up. More was expected of me this year, too. Coach has relied on me to be a leader and a defensive stopper. And the way I see it, what's the point of coming back and to be an average player?"