NEW ORLEANS — Bria Smith impacted Louisville’s 64-57 win against California with more than her scoring exploits.
The sophomore guard also made her mark at the Women’s Final Four on defense, accomplishing a simple technique at which she and the Cardinals struggled during the first half of their national semifinal Sunday night.
It was an error that nearly ended her college basketball season, one game too soon.
But there was Smith in the final seconds at the New Orleans Arena, taking advantage of the fact that California didn’t accounted for her under the rim. When Mikayla Lyles’ 3-point attempt bounced off the rim with 18 seconds left, Smith soared in the air, grabbing the rebound. Thanks to Smith, there were no more second-chance scoring opportunities for Cal. No more easy putbacks.
“It felt so good to get that rebound,” said Smith, who scored 17 points. “We had struggled with that in the first half, but we came together after halftime and started keeping them off the offensive boards.”
The Cardinals found a way, mostly through will and creative defenses, to curtail California’s bigger rebounders, led by Talia Caldwell and Gennifer Brandon.
Coupled with an energetic defense and opportunistic scoring, their efforts proved to be enough to allow Louisville to rally from a 10-point halftime deficit and send the Cardinals to Tuesday’s national championship game.
I though we tried to go to the boards just as strong in the second half,” Califorinia coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I don’t know if there was some kind of fouls called cearly on that sort of changed the tone of it. And I don’t know that we were doing anything differently, but it felt a little different.”
Smith grabbed five of her team-high six rebounds in the second half. With forward Sara Hammond in foul trouble for most of the game, Louisville (29-8) relied on Smith and her teammates to defend the glass. After all, Caldwell had three offensive rebounds in the first half, helping the Bears outscore Louisville 10-1 on second-chance points.
Hammond finished with nine points and three rebounds in 24 minutes. She played a long stretch in the second half with four fouls.
“This whole tournament, I’ve been in foul trouble,” Hammond said. “I’m an aggressive person. Down on the block, it gets a little physical. I’m not backing down from anybody.”
Not that California (32-4) made it easy in the second half. Brandon collected four of her five offensive rebounds after halftime, but with Louisville playing better defense, the Bears scored just four second-chance points. California scored more than half of its points (32) in the paint.
Louisville, though, successfully executed a slew of “junk” defenses in the second half, unorthodox schemes which mixed man defense and zone, forcing 19 California turnovers for the game.
“I think the junk defenses (changed the inside game), and we had to mix up things,” said Caldwell, who finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting. She also had nine rebounds.
“We just didn’t get our hands on a lot of offensive rebounds (like) we normally do. A little sloppiness inside.”
Smith also adjusted her offensive game. Louisville coach Jeff Walz talked to her in the first half about holding the ball too long, as well as being more patient.
So, he was.
Her offense helped Louisville on a night in which leading scorer Shoni Schimmel struggled from the perimeter. Schimmel made just one of eight 3-pointers. She finished with 10 points. Meanwhile, Smith helped with the ballhandling and took her time to find cracks in the California defense, often finishing at the rim.
Smith still finished with eight turnovers, but her last rebound gave her and the Cardinals a reason to celebrate.
“He was telling me how I needed to slow down and I needed to stop occupying the ball so much, and we got here by playing team basketball,” Smith said. “So just to pass the ball more around and get back into the way that we play.”