- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Party crashers? Sorry, Jeff Walz, your team remains the life of this postseason party.
Louisville's coach had T-shirts printed up for his traveling party that had "#partycrashers" emblazoned on the back, a reference to his team's role in denying the Final Four either a final appearance from Brittney Griner or a familiar face in Tennessee. That was the attitude the Cardinals brought with them, an us-against-the-world mentality that invited people to fuel their fire by doubing them. But after a wild second-half comeback and a 64-57 win against California, the Cardinals are going to have to deal with the fact that they're the life of this party.
Overview: Louisville knew it needed to defend in transition and do something about Cal's rebounding advantage. It failed on both counts rather miserably in the first half. The Cardinals claimed an early 8-2 advantage, but the Golden Bears roared into the lead and had earned a comfortable 37-27 advantage at halftime, in large part because of a 23-11 edge on the boards in the opening 20 minutes. But using all of its defensive skills to make the game more frenetic in the second half and keep Cal from getting the ball inside, the Cardinals got the game they wanted after halftime. Cal hit just 9-of-30 shots after the break, giving Louisville the time and turnovers to chip away at the lead.
Key player: Bria Smith. On a tough shooting night for Shoni Schimmel (4-for-13 from the field and 1-for-8 on 3-pointers), her partner in the starting backcourt had 15 points, five rebounds and three steals. She also missed just one of seven shots from the floor and seemed as composed in the second half as Cal's Layshia Clarendon had in the first half. Credit as well to Sara Hammond, who returned from first-half foul trouble to play big inside and hit big free throws during the rally.
Key stat: Where did this come from? Louisville entered its second-round game against Purdue shooting barely 30 percent from the 3-point line on the season. Well, the Cardinals hit 8-of-20 attempts from behind the arc on Sunday night, a comfortable 40 percent. That means that in the past four games on the biggest stage of them all, they are shooting 45.9 percent. Antonita Slaughter was the hero on this count Sunday. She hit six 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 18 points.
Turning point: Give it to Hammond, who drew a foul and knocked down free throws to give her team the lead at 53-52. She then converted an and-1 to broke a tie and put the Cardinals ahead for good at 60-57.
Up next: Louisville is heading back to the national championship game for the second time in five seasons. And once again, it will face a familiar foe. The Cardinals lost to Connecticut in the 2009 title game and will face either Geno Auriemma's team or Notre Dame on Tuesday night (a night after the school's men play for the title). Louisville lost to both Big East rivals by double digits earlier this season (twice to Notre Dame), but who is going to count them out now?
First-half analysis: Cal 37, Louisville 27
Overview: Louisville entered the game having trailed for just 20 seconds in the first four rounds, and its momentum made the trip from the regional in Oklahoma City. The surprise semifinalist jumped to an 8-2 lead against Cal. But unlike the games against Baylor and Tennessee, Cal didn't let Louisville build on that start. Behind calm leadership from Layshia Clarendon and a dominant post advantage, the Bears put the Cardinals on their heels.
Key player: Reshanda Gray. It's a pick that is a little out of left field. You could certainly make a great case for Cal's Clarendon, who never looked the slightest bit nervous before the game or frazzled by the early deficit. Her composure and points were Cal's backbone in the first half, especially in contrast to the struggles of Brittney Griner and Meighan Simmons against Louisville. But Clarendon was going to have to be good for Cal to play well. It wasn't just coincidence that Cal outscored Louisville by 12 points when Gray was on the court. The sophomore forward accentuated Cal's advantage inside and provided steadier play off the bench than starter Gennifer Brandon.
That the Cardinals are still in the game speaks well of Antonita Slaughter. She missed her first 3-point attempt on the game's first shot, but the sharpshooting hero of the Baylor win hit three from deep in the first 20 minutes Sunday.
Key stat: Cal entered the Final Four third in the nation in rebounding margin, slotting in just ahead of Connecticut and Notre Dame in the top five. The odd one out in so many ways in New Orleans, Louisville took the court No. 97 in the nation in rebounding. Sometimes the stats do mean something. Cal finished the half with a 23-11 rebound advantage. The Bears made the Cardinals pay with second-chance opportunities and got Louisville forward Sara Hammond in early foul trouble. Shoni Schimmel shot 1-for-7 and had three points in the first 20 minutes.
Key moment: It wasn't one moment, but Louisville's penchant for careless turnovers blunted its early momentum. Cal scored off back-to-back turnovers by Bria Smith and Shoni Schimmel in the span of 31 seconds in the game's fourth minute. There are live-ball turnovers that are worth the risk for a team that plays as free a style as the Cardinals, but neither of these qualified. They gave the Bears the easy points that allowed them to get their feet under them.
A quick look at how Louisville rallied to top Cal and reach its second NCAA title game in five seasons.