Shimek just fine remaining in shadow
INDIANAPOLIS -- Less than 24 hours ago, minutes after shocking the most storied team in women's college hoops, three Michigan State players and their coach were summoned to the media interview room to address the press.
Liz Shimek was not one of them.
Nor was she one of the players surrounded by media members in the tunnel outside the Spartans' locker room after the news conference. Despite the fact she tallied 14 points and 11 rebounds in their remarkable 68-64 comeback victory over the Lady Vols. Despite the fact she's their leading scorer and rebounder on the season. Despite the fact that, if not for her 10 points and six boards in the first half, Tennessee might have had the Spartans packing early for East Lansing.
And you know what? She doesn't care one bit.
All Shimek's focused on right now is her team's showdown with Baylor on Tuesday night (ESPN, 8:30 ET), with the national championship at stake.
"We're playing for each other," Shimek said Monday. "Tomorrow is the season."
The 6-foot-1 junior power forward from Empire, Mich., got plenty of opportunities to speak Monday afternoon. First she appeared at MSU's news conference, with her coach and the rest of the starting five by her side. Then each player got her own room for smaller individual interview sessions.
Predictably, Shimek was peppered with questions from several reporters who'd just gotten wind of the fact that she grew up on a farm -- questions asked as if growing up on a farm was equivalent to growing up on another planet. But she handled them all gracefully. Yes, she used to bale hay, pick corn and feed cattle. And yes, it helped her develop a very strong work ethic. Yada yada yada.
But Shimek is even more interesting as a basketball player. Granted, it was hard to get her, or any of the Michigan State players for that matter, to talk much about themselves. They really are an unselfish bunch -- no wonder four players average in double figures. In fact, Shimek's face lit up the most over the course of a 30-minute interview session when asked to describe one of her teammates, Kelli Roehrig.
But Shimek is the one who kept her team in the game during the first half Sunday night, with her array of interior moves -- including up-and-unders with either hand. She also stepped out to knock down a 16-footer. On the season, she's averaging 15 points and 9.2 rebounds and shooting better than 50 percent from the field. She's eight points away from breaking the Spartans' single-season scoring record. And she's on pace to become the first MSU player ever to score 1,000 points and pull down 1,000 rebounds.
So why is she so underrated? Perhaps because she's not much of a self-promoter. But at least one person realizes just how valuable she is.
"Liz Shimek is one of the best four players in the country, hands down," said her coach, Joanne P. McCallie, on Monday afternoon.
And she'll be a key player in Tuesday night's national title game -- perhaps the key player. Both teams feature two outstanding post players. Baylor boasts Sophia Young (18.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Steffanie Blackmon (15.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg). The Spartans counter with Shimek and Roehrig (13.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Whichever tandem performs better will probably bring home the trophy.
The Spartans watched videotape of Baylor on Monday morning before their news conference.
"They are a great duo," said Shimek of Young and Blackmon. "When one drives the lane, the other is right there for the rebound. They really play well off each other."
Added McCallie: "We will not stop them, you just try to slow them down. You're just going to try to do a few things and maybe make a difference. Maybe [dictate] where they catch the ball, how they turn, which side they can go."
Why could Shimek be the key? Because she can do more things than Roehrig, her partner in the post. Roehrig has tremendous size, so she can throw her body around the paint on defense and finish around the basket on offense. But Shimek is more versatile. Defensively, even though the Spartans employ a matchup zone, Shimek can be more active and step out on players -- which will be very important, since Young did a lot of that in the second half against LSU on Sunday night and was very effective. Offensively, Shimek can create her own shot or step out to hit a jump shot.
She has stepped up in big games before -- how about her 24 points and 10 rebounds against Stanford in this year's regional final? But she says it will be a team effort.
"On any given night, anyone can go off," she said. "We don't have one All-American or one key player that you can key in on ... I definitely think that's one of the reasons we are where we are."
She's right. But this needs to be her night. The more aggressive Shimek is against Baylor, the better off the Spartans will be.
If Shimek gets invited to the postgame news conference Tuesday night, she'll probably be wearing a national championship T-shirt. And giving all the credit to her coach and her teammates.
They're playing for each other, after all.
Kieran Darcy writes for ESPN The Magazine.