Analysis: Cardinals use two-step approach to topple reigning champs

April 1, 2013 - 1:30am
Louisville post player Sara Hammond hits a step-back three over Brittney Griner, one of 16 threes hit by the Cardinals on the night. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Louisville post player Sara Hammond hits a step-back three over Brittney Griner, one of 16 threes hit by the Cardinals on the night. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

No. 5 Louisville 82, No. 1 Baylor 81

OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the Baylor-versus-Louisville Sweet 16 matchup tipped off, nearly half the press corps was still in the post-game interview room listening to Tennessee coach Holly Warlick lay out her game plan for what nearly everyone assumed would be a Tennessee-Baylor Elite Eight rematch.

As it turned out, the Tennessee-Baylor preview was premature. Someone forgot to send Jeff Walz and his Louisville Cardinals the email, and they were out on the floor, dispatching the reigning -- and anticipated repeating -- national champions.  The dispatch was so fast and furious, Louisville held the lead for the entire game, minus 6.5 seconds when Odyssey Sims sank a free throw to momentarily give Baylor the lead. In fact, Louisville led by as many as 19 points, before nipping a late-game Baylor comeback to take the win, 82-81, in the final seconds and advance to the Elite Eight.

But Louisville got there, at least in part, by executing Warlick’s plan to near-perfection -- or was it Jeff's plan that Holly was reiterating? Either way it was perfection for the Cardinals.

ŸStep One: Score from the perimeter

“You have to make shots at the outside. You’ve got to make shots,” said Warlick, and in case anyone missed it the first two times, she repeated it two sentences later: “You got to make shots.”

Or as Walz put it after the game: “Our goal was to score, score and score. I told our kids, if we have to take 40 to 50 threes, we will.”

Louisville was doing just that, and in spades, knocking down an unprecedented eight-of-11 long balls in the first half alone for an incredible 72.7 percent from beyond the arc. There’s not a team in the NCAA that has knocked down threes at that rate all season.  In fact, Louisville’s 16 threes set a new NCAA Tournament record for three-pointers in the regional semifinals; the previous record, set by Rutgers in 2011, was just 10.

You had to believe that at some point that well would run dry, that no one could keep hitting three-pointers at that rate for an entire game. Yes, their pace did ease up a bit in the second, mostly in the final ten minutes, when Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey finally realized the zone was ineffectual and began applying full-court pressure -- but by game’s end, the Cardinals had drained 16 of their 25 three-point attempts for 64 percent.

The Cardinals weren’t faring too badly elsewhere on the court, either, connecting on 48.2 percent of their shots from the field (27-56) and 75 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe (12-16), including the gamewinners by Monique Reid, who netted both after an attempted block by Brittney Griner was (belatedly) deemed a foul by the refs, sending Reid to the line with 2.6 seconds in the game.

With three of Louisville’s top scorers (Shoni Schimmel, Sara Hammond and Bria Smith) riding the pines after fouling out, Reid, who had made only one field goal in the game, nailed both clutch free throws, squelching Baylor’s comeback from a 19-point deficit and carrying the Cardinals to the historic upset.

Asked after the game what had gone wrong, Baylor’s Brooklyn Pope summed it up succinctly: “They just shot really well. I mean every shot they took pretty much went in.”

That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. But if fails to explain why so many of those three-point shots were wide open. Even after being stung so badly in the opening half –- the Bears went to the locker room trailing, 39-29, just the third time this season they’d been down at the half -– Baylor waited until deep into the second half, by which time the deficit had ballooned to 19 points, to switch to a man-to-man defense and turn up the heat.  For easily three-quarters of the game, the Bears stayed in a zone, failing to step out and defend the three-point line, even as Louisville kept hammering away from beyond the arc.

Baylor isn't exactly a great defender of the three-point line, as nationally it ranks 72nd in three-point defense, giving up 191 threes on 600 attempts (31.8 percent) this season. Geno Auriemma tried to expose this weakness when the Huskies sank 11 three-pointers on the Bears back in December. 

Baylor’s Kim Mulkey insisted that the press should blame her, and not her players, for the loss. “As I told them in the locker room, I’ll take every hit you want to write, about ‘We choked,’ ‘Baylor or bust,’ ‘Epic disappointment.’ Put it right here on these shoulders. Don’t you point one finger at those kids; you put it right on me.”

Fair enough -- I’m confident that once Mulkey’s ire at the officiating subsides and she reflects on what she might have done differently as a coach, she’ll wish she’d shifted to a man defense and turned up the pressure at least 11 seconds earlier than she did. When that adjustment was finally made, it proved effective in forcing the Cardinals into costly fouls and turnovers, and the Bears quickly made up the deficit, taking a one-point lead, 81-80, on a pair of penalty shots by Odyssey Sims with 9.6 seconds remaining.

It’s not surprising that the prospect of a tidal wave of Louisville treys didn’t feature high in the Baylor scouting report. Though Louisville does have four shooters who knock down better than 30 percent of  their attempts from downtown, as a team, the Cardinals have been, at best, a mediocre three-point shooting team, connecting on just 32.3 percent (201-622) of their three-point attempts all season. The best they’ve done from beyond the arc this year was at South Florida, when they knocked down 10 of their 23 attempted three-pointers on their way to a 78-75 win. But the Bulls weren’t exactly the Bears when it came to defense this season.

And on this night, it wasn’t just Louisville's designated sharpshooter Shoni Schimmel who had the hot hand: Schimmel doled out a lot of the hurt, draining five of her eight long-ball attempts to finish witih a team-high 22 points, but five members of Louisville’s nine-deep rotation knocked down one or more treys.

Still it does raise some question about the quality of the Baylor scouting report that Mulkey expressed surprise that Louisville post Antonita Slaughter was such a big part of the three-point blitz. “Well, the post player that Griner is guarding, she hits a couple,” said Mulkey. “That’s when you know it’s going to be a long day. I’m not sure she’s taken a whole lot of threes all year.”

On this night, Slaughter led the way for Louisville dropping in seven-of-nine from three-point range -- a whole new level for her game.  But a closer look at Slaughter's numbers reveals a lot. She is the second-most prolific three-point shooter for the Cardinals this season, and the most accurate among those on the roster who took more than 10 attempts, connecting on 56 of 159 from beyond the arc (35.2 percent) for the season. Mulkey should have known that, and the defensive game plan should have put heavier emphasis on defending the perimeter. And certainly, once the hailstorm of three-balls began, the defensive adjustment should have come sooner.

In her defense, even Walz admitted that his team’s hot shooting would be difficult to replicate. “I don’t know if we could go out there right now, five on zero, and go 16-of-25 [from three-point range],” said Walz. “But we did it in the biggest game of the year for us. Now we’re going to hopefully keep our momentum going and see what we can do on Tuesday.”

Louisville double and triple-teamed Brittney Griner on defense, limiting her to just 10 touches. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

ŸStep Two: Limit Brittney Griner's ability to get the ball

The unique phenomenon that is Brittney Griner has for the last three years left Baylor’s opponents with a dilemma: Do you double or triple on Griner and let the rest of the Bears try to beat you, or do you close down the supporting cast, and see if Griner can do it all on her own?

Walz chose the first option (departing from Warlick’s plan, which would have let Griner get her points, while trying to shut down the rest of the Baylor offense). “I kept telling my players every timeout, if they [Baylor] make 10-to-15 threes, they’re going to beat us,” said Walz. “I don’t think they can make enough threes to beat us, but I know Brittney [Griner] can make three and four-footers all night long.”

Walz’s game plan was to double-, and at times triple-team Griner, denying her touches, and essentially, force the rest of the Baylor team to beat them. And once Baylor began playing some meaningful defense late in the second half, they very nearly did. You couldn’t have asked for more out of junior point guard Odyssey Sims, who hit nine-of-18 from the field, three-of-nine from the arc, and a perfect eight-of-eight from the free-throw line. Sims finished with a game-high 29 points, making it a double-double with 10 boards (tied with Griner for the game high), and iced the cake with five assists and six steals, though she did turn it over five times.

Jordan Madden also had a strong outing, putting up 14 points on six-of-nine field-goal shooting, including two-of-three from long range. Brooklyn Pope tacked on 10 points, but on just five-of-12 field-goal shooting.

But it was not to be Brittney Griner’s night. After a tour de force on Tuesday in her final home game in Waco, Slaughter and her teammates were so successful in denying Griner touches that the all-American center took just 10 shots from the field all night, making only four of them. Griner added six points on eight trips to the penalty stripe to finish with 14 points, and grabbed 10 boards to make it a double-double, and she also batted down two blocks, grabbed three steals and doled out an assist. That’s not a bad stat line by any stretch of the imagination.

But her team needed more from its star, and Griner, who fought back tears throughout the post-game press conference, seemed to know that. On this night, when at least in the first half, the officials seemed willing to let pretty much anything go, they needed her to use her size to greater advantage, to get the ball high, if need be, and then put it on the floor and drive her way to the hoop. Instead, she seemed overly passive, waiting for the perfect entry pass, which seemed rarely to arrive.

Credit the Louisville defense, and Slaughter in particular, for making life difficult for Griner. Slaughter fronted Griner all night, denying her the entry pass, and typically got help from one or two of her teammates every time the ball threatened to enter Griner’s zip code, as Walz turned to a modified box-and-one, he calls a “claw-and-one.”

“It’s like a 1-3 zone,” Walz explained afterward. “I didn’t want to get too set up in the box where we gave the wings anything they wanted. We had Antonita [Slaughter] stay in front if the ball was on the one side of the floor. The whole goal was to jab out, come back, jab out, come back. … We switched a few possessions of going man to zone for a few passes, then jumped into man, trying to get them a little bit confused.”

“I think I could smell what toothpaste she used,” said Slaughter of how closely she was guarding Griner. “I was in her face all the time with my hands up. That was the game plan the whole time.”

Of course, Griner has endured double- and triple-teams throughout her playing career, just as she has endured lots of contact. “We see physical games every night,” she said after the game, refusing to blame the loss on the game’s physicality. “Most of the time, [we] get more calls. But, hey, you just play through it.”

There was a lot Baylor did right on Tuesday night. They controlled the boards, to the tune of 43-31. They dominated the offensive glass 19-7, although despite that discrepancy, Louisville managed 13 second-chance points to Baylor’s 19.

The Bears ruled the paint, with 36 points in the paint to just 12 for Louisville, and they took better care of the basketball, coughing the ball up just 16 times to Louisville’s 21, though the Cardinals did a better job of making their opponents pay for their mistakes, collecting 21 points off those 16 Baylor turnovers, while the Bears gained just 24 points from Louisville’s 21 miscues.

At the end of day, however, the Bears could not survive a night of relatively cold shooting by their star, even worse shooting by Kimetria Hayden (who was three-of-13 from the field and just one-of-four from long distance), and of minimal production from its bench. Not on a night when the stars aligned for Louisville and the Cardinals shot the lights out. And that leaves this year's quest for the national title wide open.