Louisville players, including Cortnee Walton (13), celebrate after beating California at the Women's Final Four on Sunday in New Orleans. Louisville won 64-57. (AP Photo)
NEW ORLEANS — Make that three straight upsets for Louisville, whose latest thriller landed the Cardinals back in the women’s national championship game for the first time since 2009.
Antonita Slaughter scored 18 points on six 3-pointers and Louisville clawed back from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat California 64-57 in the national semifinals Sunday night. Bria Smith scored 17 on 6 of 7 shooting for the Cardinals (29-8), who were a No. 5 seed and became the first team seeded worse than fourth to win a Final Four game.
“I can’t even put into words how proud I am,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “I told the kids they’re stuck with me in practice for one more day.”
The result ensures an all-Big East Conference final in the league’s last season in its current form, with Louisville meeting the winner of the other semifinal between Notre Dame and Connecticut on Tuesday night — one night after the Louisville men’s team plays Michigan for the championship.
“Right now anything can happen,” Walz said. “Why not us?”
Layshia Clarendon scored 17 for Cal (32-4), which had won the Spokane Region as a second seed. Gennifer Brandon added 12 for the Golden Bears and Brittany Boyd added 10 points.
“Credit Louisville, which obviously has been really hot,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “They outfought us in the second half.”
Louisville had to beat defending national champion Baylor and Southeastern Conference power Tennessee just to get to New Orleans, and will need to summon one more upset to win it all. Not that they’re worried about it.
“No one expects us to be here,” Slaughter said. “No one expects us to be in the championship game. Just come together as a team and win as a team.”
Shoni Schimmel, who had been one of the stars of the tournament, struggled early for Louisville, but finished with 10 points, including a clutch transition pull-up that gave Louisville a 57-54 lead with 2:06 left.
Clarendon responded with a left win 3 of her own to tie it, but Sara Hammond, playing with four fouls for the last 7:20, gave the Cardinals the lead for good with a strong move inside as she was fouled. Suddenly, Cal was forcing desperate 3s and not hitting them.
“In the first half we got out a lot on the run. We didn’t get a chance to run at all (in the second half) because we weren’t getting stops,” Clarendon said. “We made a lot of mistakes. It’s not like we played somebody who was too good and just flat out beat us.”
On Saturday night, the Louisville’s men’s team had to erase a 12-point second-half deficit against Wichita State, so the women didn’t need much inspiration when they went into halftime trailing 37-27. They came out and quickly narrowed their deficit with a 7-0 run that began with Schimmel’s 3. Smith added a mid-range jumper and Hammond scored inside to make it 37-34.
Cal was back up 47-39 when Clarendon spun into the lane for a pull-up jumper, but the Cardinals then scored the next seven points, starting with Slaughter’s deep 3 and ending with Jude Schimmel’s free throws that made it as close as 47-46.
The Cardinals finally pulled back into the lead when Hammond’s free throws made it 53-52 with 3:40 left.
“We come out, we executed perfectly to start the second half,” Walz said. “Once we took the lead, I could see it in our kids’ eyes, the excitement, ‘Hey, we can do this, we’re going to do this.’ ”
Before tipoff, Walz had the relaxed look of a coach who had been there before, which of course he had, when Louisville fell to Connecticut in the 2009 national title game. He walked over to the Cal bench for a friendly chat with Gottlieb, giving her a hug before he walked back toward his bench, and then went across the court to welcome some fans in the front row.
Walz’s team also appeared more composed in the first few minutes, racing to an 8-2 lead with the help of Slaughter’s first 3 and a pair of layups by Smith. Smith’s third basket inside the first five minutes gave Louisville a 10-6 lead, then Cal started to look more comfortable.
Talia Caldwell’s putback marked the beginning of a 12-1 run, capped by Clarendon’s transition jumper that gave the Golden Bears an 18-11 lead.
Jude Schimmel’s 3 got Louisville as close as 25-22 midway through the half, but the Cardinals had trouble keeping pace while Shoni Schimmel, their leading scorer, missed six of her first seven shots.
Cal, which has won with strong rebounding all season, also controlled the game in that department, 23-11 overall and 8-3 in offensive rebounds. Complicating matters for Louisville was that Hammond, their leading rebounder (6.5 per game), sat out most of the first half with two fouls.