NEW ORLEANS — One half of domination deserves another.
After being outplayed in the first half, Louisville came back with a vengeance in the second to take a 64-57 victory over California in the first game of the NCAA Women’s Final Four on Sunday night in the New Orleans Arena.
Outrebounded badly and unable to get rolling offensively, Louisville fell behind by 10 points at halftime. But the Cardinals began running their offense more efficiently, made an adjustment defensively and battled toe-to-toe on the boards in the second half to outscore the Bears 37-20.
The Cardinals advanced to Tuesday night’s championship game against Connecticut, making it an All-Big East title match. Louisville is the first No. 5 seed in the NCAA women’s tournament to reach the championship game — and the lowest seed ever.
“We finally started playing with more patience (offensively),” coach Jeff Walz said. “We executed the first play flawlessly, and Shoni (Schimmel) hit a 3, and that got us started.
“In the first half, we were dribbling the ball too much. I thought they were checking the air (in the ball) or something. We told them, ‘You have to pass the ball and play off the passes.’ ”
After Schimmel’s 3, Bria Smith, who scored 17 points, came back with a jump shot 1½ minutes into the second half, bringing Louisville to 37-32. The Cardinals stayed on the Bears’ heels after that, mostly behind the timely 3-pointers of Antonita Slaughter, who scored a game-high 18 points on 6-of-10 3-point shooting, making three in each half.
The Cardinals made their move after trailing 50-46 with 8:14 left. They outscored Cal 7-2 in the next 4½ minutes to take a 53-52 lead on two free throws by Sara Hammond after Slaughter sank a big 3-pointer to cut the lead to one.
Still, the score was tied at 57 with 1:47 to go after a 3-pointer by Cal’s Layshia Clarendon. But Hammond scored a three-point play in the low post with 1:28 remaining.
Mikayla Lyles, put in the game to give the Bears another 3-point shooting option, missed one. Smith grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 17.7 seconds left. She made both free throws to push the lead to 62-57.
After another Cal miss, Jude Schimmel sank two with four seconds remaining.
In the second half, Louisville continued to play its 1-3-1 full-court trap, then got into man-to-man and its trademark junk defenses — such as the triangle-and-two.
“We started switching more on their screens,” Hammond said. “We just weren’t executing the defense, nor the offense, and following the game plan like the coaches wanted us to.”
California finished with 19 turnovers but actually had one fewer, nine, in the second half. Still, Clarendon said the Cardinals’ defense was more effective.
“In the first half, we were able to get out on the break a lot more,” said Clarendon, who scored a team-high 17 points. “Midway through the second half, they started throwing a lot of junk at us. They started getting turnovers, and they got the momentum shift and took over.”
Said Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb: “We couldn’t get as many stops in the second half, and that made it tougher to attack their press.”
Rattled by the defenses, Cal had trouble simply throwing the ball over the top to its big front court. The Bears shot just 30 percent (9-of-30) in the second half.
Talia Caldwell, who presented a problem in the first half with nine rebounds and seven points, did not score or grab a rebound in the second.
The Cardinals, who shot 40 percent in the first half, were at 50 percent in the second half (11-of-22), including 44.4 percent on 3s, and made all 11 of their free-throw attempts.
Just as important, they battled to a 15-15 rebounding standoff in the second half after Cal took a 23-11 advantage in the first.
California had taken a 37-27 halftime lead on the strength of its inside game. Grabbing eight offensive rebounds, the Bears scored 24 points in the lane and had 10 second-chance points and 10 on fast breaks, which keyed its 58.6 percent shooting.
Just as important, Cal’s man-to-man defense, with Eliza Pierre coming in against Shoni Schimmel, was effective. Fighting over screens hard and switching when Louisville picks were effective, the Bears kept the Cardinals’ lethal 3-point shooting in check. Louisville shot 4-of-12 on 3s but made just 10 of its 25 total shots.
Caldwell was a thorn, shooting 3-of-3, mostly on put-backs. Most important, she led the offensive rebounding assault with three.
Just as disturbing for Louisville, Cal’s guards combined for 20 points. Clarendon led with eight, Boyd had seven and Afure Jemerigbe five.
Slaughter and Smith kept the Cardinals in the game with nine points each.
Louisville scored six of the game’s first eight points and led 10-6 at 15:24. However, the Bears then went on a 10-0 run, with Caldwell getting two low-post baskets and Gray one, to lead 16-10.
Slaughter sank a 3 that brought Louisville to 20-16 at 10:45, then another that cut the lead to 23-19. The Cardinals got as close as 25-22 after a 3-pointer by Jude Schimmel with 8:50 showing.
However, Jemerigbe hit a big 3 at 6:57, pushing the lead back to six, and Caldwell had a putback a minute later and led 30-22. The margin reached 35-25 with 1:41 showing when Jemerigbe drove for a basket with the shot clock down to one.