Post game reaction - Louisville defeats Cal to advance to the National Championship game.
NEW ORLEANS -- The storybook season had to come to an end for one of the two dark horse contestants in Sunday's national semifinal between California and Louisville. Cal lost the coin toss.
It didn’t start off looking like things would end up that way. Fifth-seeded Louisville had battled its way to the Final Four with a consistent game plan: Hit hard; hit early. The Cardinals had stunned first Baylor, then Tennessee, piling up early leads and then holding on while their opponents tried to dig their way out of the hole.
This time, both teams deviated from that script. True, Louisville came out strong, taking a six-point edge in the game’s first three minutes, but Cal never let the game get away from them. Over the ensuing two-and-a-half minutes, the Golden Bears struck back, tying the game at 10 apiece on Layshia Clarendon’s jumper at the 14:46 mark and seizing the lead on their next possession as Eliza Pierre got loose on a fast break and pulled up to net another. Both plays came off assists from Brittany Boyd.
From there, it was Cal doling out the hurt for the remainder of the half, and though the Cardinals battled valiantly to hold the Bears in check, by halftime, Cal held a 10-point, 37-27, lead.
Both teams shot the ball well throughout the opening half, with Cal netting 58.6 percent (17-29) of its first-half attempts, including 40 percent (two-of-five) of its shots from downtown. Louisville was hitting in excess of 65 percent of its shots in the game’s early minutes, but by the end of the half had “cooled” to a “mere” 40 percent (10-25) from the floor and 33.3 percent (four-of-12) from the arc as the Bears turned up the defensive heat. (Both teams were pathetic from the foul line, with California shooting one-of-six (16.7 percent) in the first period and Louisville faring only marginally better with three-of-eight (37.5 percent) first-half free-throw shooting. It made one wonder whether either team could knock down a shot if it weren’t contested.)
But the controlling element in the game’s opening period was Cal’s superior rebounding. The Bears dominated the boards, 23-11, in the first half, and controlled the offensive glass to the tune of 8-3. But more importantly they utilized that rebounding advantage effectively to punish the Cardinals, taking a 10-1 edge in second-chance points. Those putbacks helped Cal to a 24-10 advantage in the paint. Rebounding also fueled the Bears’ transition game, as Cal took a 10-4 first-half edge in fast-break points.
Most important of all, Cal’s rebounding put the brakes on Louisville’s possession game. After each of the Cardinals' last two tournament upsets, Louisville coach Jeff Walz has made clear that his strategy has been either “three-point, three-point, three-point” or “layup, layup, layup.” In other words, Walz has no problem with volume shooting if it leads to volume scoring. While it’s nice when the Cardinals can shoot the lights out as they did against Baylor, it’s enough simply to put more points on the board, even with less than efficient shooting, as they did, to a degree, against Tennessee. But for that strategy to work, you have to have significantly more possessions than your opponent –- enough, at least, to offset your own poor shooting and lack of defense.
But in this game –- at least in the first half of it –- Cal, thanks to its rebounding and a turnover differential that tipped only slightly (10-8) in Louisville’s favor, took more shots on goal (29) than Louisville (25). And with the Bears shooting the ball even slightly better than the Cardinals, that put Cal decidedly in charge.
Brittney Boyd of Cal scrambles for a loose ball against Jude Schimmel of Lousiville. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
As Walz pointed out, Louisville was also hurting itself throughout the first half with the way the Cardinals squandered clock with excessive dribbling. “What I told them [at half time] was, 'We’ve got to stop dribbling the ball.' I mean, that’s all we did was dribble, dribble, dribble.”
You can’t “score, score, score” if you’re busy “dribbling, dribbling, dribbling.” As Walz quipped, “I thought they were all trying to check the air [in the ball]. I’m like, ‘Guys, the officials did that before the game. You’re OK.’ And it’s all they did. We occupied the ball. It was one person after another. It wasn’t anybody trying to be selfish, but they just kept pounding it into the ground, and I finally said, ‘We don’t have a chance to win if you keep dribbling the thing. You’ve got to pass. You’ve got to get it up the floor to pass. You’ve got to rip it through in a triple-threat position and play off the pass instead of off the dribble the entire night.’ And we finally did a much better job of that in the second half. We ended up with 12 assists on the night and I think we had three or four at half. And I think that shows how much of a better job we did.”
Indeed, they did. In its last two games, Louisville had trailed by no more than single digits and at that for a matter of seconds. The question that hung in the air over the intermission was how the Cardinals would fare when it was they, not their opponent, struggling to overcome a deficit.
Louisville didn’t take long to answer. The second half opened with Clarendon missing a jumper, rebounding her own miss, and passing off to Talia Caldwell, who had her layup blocked by Louisville’s Sheronne Vails. Gennifer Brandon roped in that rebound, too, for Cal, but promptly turned it over.
Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel took a feed from Bria Smith and drained a trey on the other end. Clarendon, who otherwise turned in an outstanding performance in the final game of her collegiate career, leading Cal with 17 points, plus five boards, an assist, a block and a steal, turned the ball over on the Bears’ next possession. Once again, the Cardinals exploited the opportunity as Bria Smith knocked down a jumper on a dish from Shoni Schimel to shave the Cal advantage to just five points less than two minutes into the second period.
It would take Louisville nearly 14 minutes more to tie the score and claim its first lead since the early minutes of the first period. But Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb pointed to that opening sequence as a turning point in the momentum of the game:
“Talia [Caldwell] got the ball, could have finished, maybe got fouled, wasn’t called. I thought we should have gone up 12 right then. Then they come right back down, hit a three. So all of a sudden, it’s [a] seven[-point lead] instead of 12 in my mind, and I think we turned it over again and they scored. Sure. It set the tone. You always want to start out well. That being said, it was a concern, but I didn’t feel like we couldn’t counterpunch. But it was not a very good start to the second half.”
Walz, too, pointed to those critical first minutes in the second period as a source of renewed confidence for his team: “[W]hat happened was we finally started to get a little more patient at the offensive end. We came out, we executed our first play perfect. Shoni [Schimmel] gets a three. We come down the floor, we run our second set, the second play. Bria Smith –- I believe Bria hits a jump shot.”
Cal did strike back as Gottlieb predicted, but never managed to stretch its lead beyond eight points as the second half progressed. And as the game approached the midpoint of the second stanza, the Cardinals began chipping away at even that meager advantage. Slaughter, who led all players with 18 points including six-of-10 three-pointers, knocked down a trey on an assist from Bria Smith. 47-42, Cal. Smith netted two free throws; Jude Schimmel nailed two more. 47-46, Cal.
Boyd and Brandon put some air back in the deflating Cal tire with a trey and a layup, but Shoni Schimmel and Slaughter answered with a layup and a three-pointer, respectively, and it was once again a one-point ball game, 52-51, Cal, with just four-and-a-half minutes to go.
And then came the second critical sequence of the second half. Sara Hammond, who might be the unsung hero of the game for Louisville, had picked up her fourth personal and retired to the bench at the 8:39 mark. Hammond hadn’t done much to that point –- at least not much that shows up in the stat sheet, but her defense had been key in keeping the Cal bigs in check throughout the second half. Walz had confidence in his sophomore forward-center, and he didn’t keep her riding the pines for very long.
With 3:40 to go in the game, and Cal still leading by one, Caldwell fouled Hammond, who coolly stepped to the line to nail both, giving Louisville its first lead (53-52) since the early minutes of the opening half.
Over the next two-and-a-half minutes, the two teams traded blows, with the score tied or the lead changing hands six times in that brief span. But if the momentum hadn’t changed at the opening of the second half, it had definitely shifted now. With 1:28 remaining, Hammond took the dish from Shoni Schimmel and dropped in a layup. Fouled in the process, she then knocked down the penalty shot to convert the traditional three-point play and give Louisville the lead for good.
The rest of the scoring came at the charity stripe, and the Cardinals, whose warm-up shirts bear the slogan “Rise to the Occasion,” suddenly became much better free-throw shooters when the occasion demanded it. They netted all five of their penalty shots down the stretch, while Clarendon, Brandon, Afure Jemerigbe and sub Mikayla Lyles couldn’t seem to buy a bucket at the other end of the floor. When the buzzer sounded, it was Louisville on top, 64-57.
Bria Smith added 17 points on six-of-seven from the field to Slaughter's 18 for the victors; she also grabbed a team-high six boards, dealt out two assists and grabbed three steals, though she coughed the ball up eight times. Shoni Schimmel contributed 10 points, though on a lackluster four of 13 from the floor and an even more dismal one-of-eight from long range. But she was effective in putting the ball in the right hands, dealing out six dimes to just a single turnover, and icing the cake with two blocks and a steal. Hammond and Jude Schimmel chipped in nine points apiece.
Cal also had three players in double figures with Brandon adding 12 points on six-of-11 shooting to Clarendon's 17, and Boyd tacking on 10, plus four boards, three assists and three steals (but six turnovers). Brandon and Caldwell (seven points) hauled down nine rebounds apiece for the Bears.
So what made the difference in the second half and ultimately in the outcome of the game? Cal players pointed to the junk defenses Louisville threw at them. Walz did shift from straight zone, going in and out of man in a trapping, pressure defense that has given the Bears fits in the past, as when UCLA turned to pressure to upset Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal.
But perhaps more importantly, Louisville both stepped up its own defensive efforts, went to work on the boards and mobilized its passing game. The result: Whereas Cal had dominated the backboards in the opening half, the two sides were dead even on the glass at 15 apiece in the second half. Cal still ruled the offensive boards, but by only a nine-to-four margin in the second period, and Louisville put the brakes on the Bears’ ability to capitalize on even that modest advantage, holding Cal to just four second-chance points in the second half.
The loss of the easy putbacks also cost Cal its advantage in the paint: The two sides scored eight points each in the key in the second period. And because Cal’s transition game is fueled by its rebounding, the Bears lost that edge as well, as the pace of the game slowed and each side netted only two fast-break points.
Clarendon described the net effect of Louisville’s stepped-up efforts on the pace of the game in the second half: “We weren’t getting stops on defense. So a lot of the first half, I think you guys saw us get out, we got to run a lot. The second half, they were scoring so much [Louisville outscored Cal 37-20 in the second frame], our pace really slowed down. We had to go against their press, kind of work [it] in every single time, and it seemed like we were shooting really low on the shot clock because it took us so long to get down there. And the last two minutes, I think [we were] a little panicked. I think we just didn’t get the ball inside as much. And maybe, credit to them, throwing the traps, kind of getting us rattled, getting us back on our feet a little bit. Definitely, their press and their defense –- we didn’t get a chance to run at all because we weren’t getting stops.”
The two other major differences were three-balls and free-throws. The Cardinals kept hammering away from long range and by game's end had netted eight of their 21 attempts (38.1 percent) from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Cal knocked down just four of its 15 attempts (26.7 percent) from the perimeter. That's a 12-point difference that more than accounts for the margin of victory, so had Cal been able either to defend the three-point line more effectively or convert more of its own long-ball attempts, it could have hung onto its first-half advantage.
When it came to free throws, Cal got to charity stripe just seven times, which Gottlieb said surprised her, because the Bears' penetrating style typically gives them the edge in the personal fouls column. But in this game, Louisville paid 19 visits to the line to Cal’s seven. (Of course, five of Louisville's trips to the line came down the stretch when Cal was forced to foul, but even taking those foul shots out of the picture, that still leaves the Cardinals shooting penalty shots twice as often as the Bears.) But the Cardinals also substantially improved their free-throw shooting in the second-period, knocking down 14 to finish at 73.7 percent from the line. Meanwhile, Cal went an abysmal one-for-seven (14.3 percent) at the stripe. That differential in free-throws also accounts for Louisville’s margin of victory -- nearly twice over -- so you can bet Gottlieb will have her crew practicing their foul shooting over the summer.
Gottlieb perhaps summed the story of the two halves up best: “It’s interesting –- a stat sheet doesn’t always tell the story of the game, but I think this one does. We didn’t score in the second half. They totally affected our pace. We had a hard time –- we shot like 60 percent in the first half, and we had a hard time breaking them down and getting the looks we wanted in the second half, and so then we didn’t get inside touches.”
Still, at the end of the day, Gottlieb continued, “The stat categories are all exactly how you thought they would be if you were analyzing the game beforehand. They just did their thing in the second half a little bit better than we did our thing in the first half. And … even then, we could have made a play or two or gotten a stop or two at the end and still won the game.”
Louisville did its thing in the second half, and so the Cardinals’ Cinderella postseason continues as they advance to face Connecticut in Tuesday’s championship game.
Meanwhile, Cal’s school-record-shattering season came to an end in the semifinals, but Gottlieb and her team are keeping the loss in perspective: “What I said to our team in the locker room is that we can be disappointed about a half of basketball that we wish we had back. We could be disappointed to not be playing on Tuesday night because we really wanted to be playing on Tuesday night,” said Gottlieb. “But I’m going to think about that for two minutes, and for the next 10,000 minutes I’m going to think about what this group did for the University of California: I think forever the legacy they will have left from this year -- that when you come to Cal, you play for the person next to you, you play with a lot of character, you work really hard, that you make the name on the front of your chest the most important thing even if you’re really really talented. And I’m just so grateful that we got to play into the second to last possible day you could be playing a game.”
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