NEW ORLEANS — Having played a big part in slaying the giant when Louisville beat the NCAA women’s tournament’s No. 1 seed, Baylor, center Sara Hammond wasbracing for a beast of another kindSaturday.
When Louisville (28-8) tips off at 5:30 p.m. Sunday against California (32-3), much of the attention will be on the teams’ flashy guards, the Cardinals’ Shoni Schimmel and the Bears’ Layshia Clarendon.However, Hammond and her frontcourt mates know they playperhaps the most important role.
“Yeah, the coaches told us, if we’re going to win this game, rebounding is going to be key,” said Hammond, a 6-foot-2 sophomore. “They’re a very athletic team, their post players get in there and they’re relentless on the boards. And their guards are, too.”
California trailed Georgia for much of their Elite Eight game, but the Bears won on the strength of a jaw-dropping 27 offensiverebounds. With junior forward Gennifer Brandon, a 6-2 junior, and senior center Talia Caldwell and sophomore power forwardReshanda Gray, both 6-3, the Bears led the Pac-12 Conference in rebounding, a big reason they finished as regular-season co-champions with a 17-1 record.
Cal has grabbed 37 more rebounds per game than opponents in the tournament, although South Florida and LSU basically stood toe-to-toe with the Bears. Opponents have gotten nine morerebounds than Louisville.
Unlike Baylor’s 6-foot-8 slender All-American Brittney Griner, who was rendered ineffective by Louisville’s swarming defense, Caldwell and Gray are of a much stronger build, and Brandon is the mostathletic of the three.
“We’ll have to have the mentality we did against Baylor and Tennessee ... that we’re going to be the tougher team, and we’ll be the team that’s more relentless,” Hammond said. “And we’ve got to fight. We’ve just gotta make sure that we’re putting a forearm into their post players and making sure they don’t get a hand on the ball.”
In a game in which both teams want to push the pace and score fast-break baskets, including, in Louisville’s case, 3-pointers, rebounding will be at a premium.
“Rebounding and getting back in transition to stop their break will be the key to the game,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
California’s offensive rebounding is of particular concern to Walz. Louisville, which has made 33 3-pointers in the tournament at a 42.9-percent rate, gets its share in transition.
Forty-five percent of Cal’srebounds have been offensive this season. Putbacks would mean California is scoring at a more efficient clip, and while the Cardinals are taking the ball out of the net, the Bears are getting back on defense more easily.
Brandon, who was third in the Pac-12 in rebounding at 11.2, said when it comes to offensiverebounds, Caldwell “is a beast.” Caldwell said the Bears’ rebounding puts pressure on teams.
“It’s been that way all season,” Caldwell said. “People are extra physical from the beginning of the game. Or, it has had an effect schematically.
“You can hear them talking‘double here, double there,’ and they are double-teaming our bigs just for a box-out. You can tell it’s part of their game plan.”
However, she said Louisville’s frontcourt won’t be pushed around and that it presents a challenge.
“They are versatile, just like their team,” Caldwell said. “They’re physical, aggressive, really good players. And you saw how theyhandled Griner, so I know that they’re not scared.”
And the Cardinals have other ways to get their break going. In the four tournament games, foes have turned the ball over a whopping 76 times (19.0 per game), with Louisville getting 44 steals (11 per game).
That is Bears coach LindsayGottlieb’s main concern.
“They like to get out in transition, and they get tremendous guard play with Shoni (Schimmel),”Gottlieb said. “And their offense starts from the kind of disruptive defense that they play. Obviously, they mix it up a lot, from zone to man to what we call some of these junk defenses, like triangle and two and things like that.
“We’re going to have to be ready to handle their pressure andmultiple defenses.”
Cal seems to have had the most problems against zones, however. Against Georgia, the Bears started the game 1 of 19. Point guard Brittany Boyd, however, said that’s been overblown.
“We’ve seen it all year,” she said. “We’ve had games where we’ve scored 90 or struggled to score 60. We’re still here. We win in a lot of ways. Something is working.”