NEW ORLEANS — The more Louisville extends its remarkable run, the more coach Jeff Walz wants to make sure his Cardinals enjoy every moment.
As long as they have one more upset in them for the NCAA championship game.
The upstart Cardinals got 18 points — all on 3-pointers — from Antonita Slaughter and they methodically clawed back from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat California 64-57 on Sunday night in the NCAA semifinals. For a team that has beaten Baylor, Tennessee and now the second-seeded Golden Bears, a little celebration was in order.
“We’re going to go on Bourbon Street,” said Walz, whose team has one last practice Monday before Tuesday night’s title game. “I’ll tell the kids, as long as they’re back by 2, we’re OK.”
Bria Smith scored 17 on 6 of 7 shooting for the fifth-seeded Cardinals (29-8), who became the first team seeded lower than fourth to win a Final Four game. The result ensures an all-Big East Conference final in the league’s last season in its current form, with Louisville meeting the winner of the other semifinal between Notre Dame and Connecticut one night after the Louisville men’s team plays Michigan for the championship.
“The way I look at it, I think the men are trying to feed off of our success,” Walz said with a smirk before adding on a serious note that he’d received word from Atlanta that the Louisville men “were in the hotel lobby jumping up and down and cheering for us.”
Layshia Clarendon scored 17 for Cal (32-4), which had won the Spokane Region as a second seed. Gennifer Brandon added 12 for the Golden Bears and Brittany Boyd added 10 points.
“Credit Louisville, which obviously has been really hot,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “They outfought us in the second half.”
It was the third straight upset by Louisville, which had to beat defending national champion Baylor and the powerful Lady Vols just to get to the Big Easy. They will need to summon one more to win it all. Not that they’re worried about it.
“No one expects us to be here,” Slaughter said. “No one expects us to be in the championship game. Just come together as a team and win as a team.”
Shoni Schimmel, who had been one of the stars of the tournament, struggled early for Louisville, but finished with 10 points, including a clutch transition pull-up that gave Louisville a 57-54 lead with 2:06 left.
Clarendon responded with a left win 3 of her own to tie it, but Sara Hammond, playing with four fouls for the last 7:20, gave the Cardinals the lead for good with a strong move inside as she was fouled. Suddenly, Cal was forcing desperate 3s and not hitting them.
After shooting 58. 6 percent (17 of 29) in the first half, Cal shot only 30 percent (9 of 30) in the second, negating the Bears’ 38-26 advantage in rebounds.
“In the first half we got out a lot on the run. We didn’t get a chance to run at all (in the second half) because we weren’t getting stops,” Clarendon said. “We made a lot of mistakes. It’s not like we played somebody who was too good and just flat out beat us.”
On Saturday night, the Louisville’s men’s team had to erase a 12-point second-half deficit against Wichita State, so the women didn’t need much inspiration when they went into halftime trailing 37-27. They came out and quickly narrowed their deficit with a 7-0 run that began with Schimmel’s 3. Smith added a mid-range jumper and Hammond scored inside to make it 37-34.
Cal was back up 47-39 when Clarendon spun into the lane for a pull-up jumper, but the Cardinals then scored the next seven points, starting with Slaughter’s deep 3 and ending with Jude Schimmel’s free throws that made it as close as 47-46.
The Cardinals finally pulled back into the lead when Hammond’s free throws made it 53-52 with 3:40 left.
“We come out, we executed perfectly to start the second half,” Walz said. “Once we took the lead, I could see it in our kids’ eyes, the excitement, ‘Hey, we can do this, we’re going to do this.’
“We’re playing our best basketball at the end of the year and that’s all that matters,” Walz added. “We’re figuring out a way to pull them out.”
Before tip-off, Walz had the relaxed look of a coach who had been there before, which of course he had in 2009, when Louisville climbed out of a 12-point hole to beat Oklahoma State in the national semifinals before falling to Connecticut in the title game. He walked over to the Cal bench for a friendly chat with Gottlieb, giving her a hug before he walked back toward his bench, and then went across the court to welcome some fans in the front row.
Walz’s team also appeared more composed in the first few minutes, racing to an 8-2 lead with the help of Slaughter’s first 3 and a pair of layups by Smith. Smith’s third basket inside the first five minutes gave Louisville a 10-6 lead, then Cal started to look more comfortable.
Talia Caldwell’s putback marked the beginning of a 12-1 run, capped by Clarendon’s transition jumper that gave the Golden Bears an 18-11 lead.
Jude Schimmel’s 3 got Louisville as close as 25-22 midway through the half, but the Cardinals had trouble keeping pace while Shoni Schimmel, their leading scorer, missed six of her first seven shots.
Cal, which had won with strong rebounding all season, also controlled the game in that department, 23-11 overall and 8-3 in offensive rebounds in the first half. Complicating matters for Louisville was that Hammond, their leading rebounder (6.5 per game), sat out most of the half with two fouls.