Louisville still the life of the party
Entire roster comes together at the right time to carry Cardinals to title game
NEW ORLEANS -- Louisville coach Jeff Walz has the kind of voice that could peel the paint off Bourbon Street walls and wake the residents of the famed Saint Louis Cemetery should he feel inclined to deliver such a soliloquy.
And you might have thought he would have felt so inclined, after watching what he described as perhaps the worst half of basketball his team played all season in its biggest game of the season. But Walz played a different tune when he walked in the locker room at halftime and spoke to a group of players who trailed by double-digit points in a national semifinal.
"He came in, he was calm, cool and collected -- and he was smiling," Louisville's Sara Hammond said. "We thought he was going to come in here and yell at us and tell us we're not following the scouting report. He just told us, 'Guys, you're not doing what you've done the whole tournament and what got you here.' He told us we've got to follow the scouting report, we've got to box them out, but ultimately we've got to come together as a team and have fun.
"That was his main message, was to have fun, enjoy this moment and put a smile on your face and go out there and play."
If what followed in the second half of No. 5 seed Louisville's 64-57 win against second-seeded California doesn't leave you rooting for the Cardinals on Tuesday night, you either have a diploma from California or Connecticut or you think Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" was a lovely story until Ebenezer Scrooge went soft in the end. The Cardinals aren't always pretty, but rarely has a team made the first five rounds of the tournament so much fun.
"We will love if America falls in love with us," Louisville guard Bria Smith said. "It feels good to prove people wrong, and now I think people can start seeing that we worked hard to get here and we deserve to be here."
They also deserved to be down 37-27 at halftime. The Cardinals jumped to an 8-2 lead in the game's opening minutes and then proceeded to look like a team that was barely in the Big East discussion, let alone the national conversation, for much of the winter. Smith and Shoni Schimmel coughed up careless turnovers in quick succession. Cal's Layshia Clarendon showed the poise and the shot-making ability that made her the best player on the court, finding far more room to operate than Baylor's Brittney Griner or Tennessee's Meighan Simmons ever did. And Cal simply crushed its opponent inside, finishing the first half with a 23-11 rebound advantage.
"We like to make them interesting," Walz said. "We thought we'd try to throw some spice into things. No, Cal is unbelievable. Cal deserves all the credit for how we were playing in the first half. They defended us well, they got after us, they really pressured the ball a lot and then got us off-balance. That's why we just kept dribbling the ball all night long for the first half."
The second half threatened to open with more of the same. Clarendon missed Cal's first shot of the half but gave her team a second chance with an offensive rebound. That nearly led to another inside basket, but Talia Caldwell had her shot blocked by Sheronne Vails. Schimmel hit a 3-pointer at the other end, the only one she hit in eight attempts, and the ensuing Cal turnover led to a long jumper from Smith. Instead of a 12-point Cal lead out of the gates, it was a five-point game with more than 18 minutes still to play. The game was on again.
Cal kept Louisville at bay for most of the next 10 minutes, expanding the lead to as many as eight points and never letting it drop to fewer than four. But they also started to play the way Louisville wanted to play. Cal seemed to be playing faster even as points came more slowly. The patience to get the ball inside slipped away. The rebound edge vanished as fouls mounted. And the defense started to get in their heads, Cal players commenting afterward about the effect of the junk defense.
"We went into zone and then we'd wait three passes and go into man," Hammond said. "I think that kind of got them flustered and thinking, 'Well, I thought they were in zone.' And then we started switching screens the last couple of minutes, and their guards couldn't get off clear shots."
And people like Antonita Slaughter kept hitting shots. Slaughter is shooting 44.7 percent from the 3-point line in the NCAA tournament. That after she shot 33.8 percent in all games leading up to the tournament. Louisville finally reclaimed the lead at 52-51 on free throws from Sara Hammond and got it back for good when she converted a three-point play for a 60-57 lead with a minute and a half to play. But from start to finish, Slaughter's shooting spoke to Louisville's ability to make the plays it needed to make.
"It's all in the kids," Walz said. "I mean, we try to put them in the right spot with the game plan, but I haven't made a shot. Antonita goes out there and goes 6-for-10 from the 3-point line. Now, we do a good job of getting her open 3s, but she does a great job of hitting them."
Walz and his staff made adjustments at halftime and put together the game plan that gave the Cardinals a chance to beat a team with superior talent. And yet this wasn't about coaching wizardry or even really about X's and O's. The Cardinals have a special player in Schimmel, whose lack of a basketball filter makes her such a compelling figure, but the second half comeback was about a group being collectively good enough -- just as it was a group that didn't look likely to get out of the second round earlier in the season.
When Louisville beat Oklahoma with a second-half rally from a double-digit deficit in a semifinal in 2009, All-American Angel McCoughtry had 18 points and 11 rebounds. She and Candyce Bingham, far and away that team's two best players, combined for 32 points, more than half of the team's total. Sunday wasn't about Schimmel putting a team on her back. Or at least one Schimmel. It was about Jude Schimmel again playing big minutes, Hammond overcoming foul trouble to make big plays down the stretch, Smith and Slaughter hitting shots and Reid gutting out minutes on one leg.
There's a reason this team could come back from 10 points down. There is a reason it was both a No. 5 seed and the first No. 5 seed to reach the final game.
"I think this team is a lot closer," Reid said. "I think we had more talent on the '09 team, but this has been a team effort. The team chemistry has been amazing. That's one thing different from the '09 team. The team chemistry has been a lot better. Not saying we didn't like each other on the '09 team, but we're so close now -- we actually hang out, we have best friends on the team. It's been really good."
How much any of that helps them Tuesday remains to be seen. Louisville is built for the postseason because it's generally playing teams as unfamiliar with the Cardinals as they are with the opponent. And that's almost always going to work in the favor of the team with Walz drawing up plays. Just as four years ago, when the magic disappeared in a 22-point loss in the championship game, Louisville now faces a Connecticut team that knows all its tricks.
But the team that put things together at just the right time to crash the party in New Orleans has proved to be the life of the tournament. Louisville loves people picking against them. It's time for people to love Louisville.
"Well, they can fall in love with us," Walz said. "I think it's fantastic; we love the support. But don't pick us, all right? We like to be the underdogs. We've gone with that the entire time."