To paraphrase Pat Summitt: Offense wins fans; defense wins games; rebounding wins championships.
California is one of the best, if not the best, rebounding teams in the country. Granted, the Bears are, at best, indifferent shooters. They have fewer assists than turnovers. They are apoor free-throw shooting team.
Louisville is an above-average rebounding team, but the Cardinals do not have the size or the aggression to match the Bears on the boards. But they are better shooters (though not by much from three-point distance) and force an amazing number of turnovers. And there is that magic, the undeniable momentum that comes from knocking off mighty Baylor and storied Tennessee in back-to-back games.
So how will the semifinal play out? Let’s take a closer look.
Point guard: Brittany Boyd, a most confident player, seemed to have lost track of her confidence against Georgia, refusing to shoot jumpers and seldom looking to penetrate in the half-court set. And though the sophomore isn’t a great shooter and doesn’t always make good decisions, she has played with much more fire in the past. Presumably, Louisville will zone up the Bears, and if Boyd remains passive on the perimeter, Cal will continue to struggle.
Bria Smith, who took over at point for Louisville halfway through the season, doesn’t shoot from outside at all (just six three-point attempts this season, all misses), has 15 more turnovers than assists and like Boyd, is a poor free-throw shooter. But she’s been brimming with confidence the past two games, and that has been key for Louisville.
So which of the two streaky sophomores will shine in New Orleans? Boyd has a little more to her game, all in all, so the odds say the edge should go to Cal – but not by much.
Shooting guard: Shoni Schimmel is a charismatic, emotional, extremely talented junior who can shoot and pass a team into a game with spectacular plays, but who can also shoot and pass a team right out of a game with shaky decisionmaking. On average, she shoots less than 40 percent and barely has more assists than turnovers; more importantly, her penchant for the big play is balanced by her penchant for the big mistake.
Layshia Clarendon is also inconsistent, but she’s also a senior, and also a better shooter and passer than Schimmel. She is much less likely to make the did-you-see-that? play but she’s also much more likely to make a good decision. In a game this big, maturity – and seniors – get the call. Advantage Cal.
Small forward: Despite Antonita Slaughter’s three-point fireworks against Baylor, she’s almost an exact duplicate of California’s Afure Jemerigbe from beyond the arc. And though she’s taller, she’s not as athletic. Still, she rebounds and handles better than Jemerigbe, who is another streaky contributor.
Slaughter gets the nod: Edge Louisville.
Power forward: Sara Hammond is a skilled sophomore who can stretch the defense (even though she was just four of 27 from three-point distance before the Baylor game) and block some shots. But she’s not a great rebounder, she’s generously listed at 6-2 and she is nowhere near as athletic as Gennifer Brandon, Cal’s 6-2 jumping jack.
Brandon, though, is an emotional player, and her emotions got the better of her against Georgia. She didn’t shoot the ball as much as fling it off the backboard, but she’s more than capable of knocking down 15-footers – and if she does, like Rebekkah Brunson of the Minnesota Lynx, she’s pretty much unstoppable. She is an absolutely fabulous rebounder at both ends of the floor, gets off the ground in a hurry, has long arms and most important, has that unteachable knack for rebounding.
And if Brandon struggles, well, meet 6-3 Reshanda Gray, who’s a better shooter than Brandon, if not quite the rebounding demon. Hammond, simply, is overmatched. Advantage Cal.
Layshia Clarendon has senior leadership that may be lacking in the Cardinal roster. (Photo courtesy of Cal Athletics)
Center: Jeff Walz pretty much has to go with 6-4 junior center Sheronne Vails or Louisville might just get blown away on the boards. The problem is that Vails is foul-prone and is not an offensive threat. In the middle of a 2-3 zone, she could pose a problem for the Bears, but she needs to do so without fouling – and she needs to play much more than the 16 minutes a game she averaged during the season.
Cal counters with its other senior, Talia Caldwell, who is a dismal free-throw shooter but otherwise is a force in the paint. She shoots 57 percent from the field, gets whatever rebounds Brandon doesn’t, and is strong, tough and clutch. She can get in foul trouble too, but not nearly as often as Vails, and she does nearly everything else better. Another advantage Cal.
Bench: Walz has gotten good work from Jude Schimmel (who has a great knack for steals) and Monique Reid, but the only size is freshman Cortnee Walton, who hasn’t been that effective on the boards. Maybe freshman Megan Deines can rise to the occasion, but if Walz has to dig that deep, the Cardinals are in trouble.
Cal doesn’t go much past seven in the rotation, with the aforementioned Gray the frontcourt backup and defensive specialist (and horrid shooter) Eliza Pierre the backcourt sub. Mikayla Lyles has hit some big threes for the Bears, but coach Lindsey Gottlieb didn’t even play her when Cal went one for its first 18 against Georgia, so it’s unlikely she’d turn to the junior in the Final Four. Call this even.
Coaching: Walz is getting lauded for his game planning against Baylor, but if he planned on watching his mediocre three-point shooting team hit 16 of 25 from beyond the arc against Baylor, then he should have already won the lottery two or three times. Taking nothing away from Walz, who had his team believing, he rolled the dice and came up with double sixes – which had a lot more to do with Louisville getting to the Final Four than any of his well-crafted strategies.
The less experienced Gottlieb is more of a cipher, but she too has her team believing in itself, but her lack of a zone attack, given the nature of her team, is puzzling. That alone gives the advantage to Louisville.
Intangibles: At this point, with these two teams that didn’t expect to be here, there’s really not much difference. Cal, though, has played poorly twice and still advanced, while Louisville has played very well. The odds say a team won’t play five good games in a row, so give a small edge to Cal.
In conclusion: If you add up the categories, it comes out 5-2-1 in favor of the Pac-12 entrant, but really this one comes down to whoever makes shots – though it must be said that if both teams shoot well, or both teams shoot poorly, California seems to have more weapons, especially on the boards. So the pick here is Cal in an emotional rollercoaster of a game with equal parts ugliness and glory.
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