Cal's remarkable run ends in Final Four
Leading for the majority of the contest, Cal saw its dream season come to a conclusion with a 64-57 loss to Louisville in a national semifinal matchup Sunday evening in New Orleans.
The Golden Bears held the lead for the last 14:22 of the first half and first 16:20 of the second before Louisville took control down the stretch. Layshia Clarendon answered a couple of late blows with a pull-up jumper to regain the lead at 54-53 and a quick-strike uncontested three to tie it up at 57 with 1:54 to play, but Sara Hammond's and-one finish from the low block with 1:28 remaining sparked a 7-0 Louisville run to close out the contest.
"Credit Louisville, which obviously has been really hot," Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb told the AP after the game. "They outfought us in the second half."
[Related video: Cal-Louisville highlights via NCAA.com]
Cal jumped out to a 37-27 halftime lead by controlling the pace of play. The Golden Bears pushed the tempo and scored 16 points in transition in the first half as a result of forcing eight Cardinal turnovers. And, known for its rebounding prowess, Gottlieb's Group also dominated the glass all night long, out-boarding the Cardinals 22-11 in the first half and 37-25 for the game.
In addition to forcing Louisville into rushed decisions on offense, Cal's perimeter players shut down leading scorer Shoni Schimmel. The player who gained notoriety for her circus shot over Baylor's Brittney Griner was held to three first-half points on just 1-7 shooting. Credit seniors Clarendon and Eliza Pierre for chasing her all over the court.
"They're on me like white on rice," Schimmel quipped to ESPN's Holly Rowe at the half.
But things would change in the final frame, as the game slowed down and Louisville corralled Cal's free-flowing offense with a masterful mix of defenses that included head coach Jeff Walz' patented "claw and one"-- essentially a 1-3 zone with the outlier guarding the opponent's top threat. While the offensive rebounds continued to pile up thanks to the hustle of Gennifer Brandon and Talia Caldwell, the get-out-and-run wasn't there over the last 20 minutes-- Cal scored just one bucket in transition in the second half.
"We didn't get a chance to run at all [in the second half] because we weren't getting stops," Clarendon told the AP. "We made a lot of mistakes."
Louisville was able to keep contact thanks to hot perimeter sniping from Antonita Slaughter, who scored 18 points on 6-10 three-point shooting. As a team, the Cardinals shot a stout 38 percent from beyond the arc exactly one week after connecting on 16 of 25 longballs in a monster 82-81 upset of the Baylor Lady Bears in the Sweet 16.
Down the stretch, Slaughter got help from fellow backcourt mates Schimmel and Bria Smith, both of whom shook off slow starts to make key plays down the stretch. On a night where she committed eight turnovers, the sophomore Smith scored 17 points on 6-7 shooting, including an impressive step-through layup past Brittany Boyd that gave Louisville the lead at 55-54 with 2:47 to play. Schimmel then hit a pull-up jumper from the foul line to extend the lead to three, and the Cardinals never trailed the rest of the way.
Cal ends its season with a 32-4 record, achieving a multitude of feats in the process. The trip to the Final Four was the school's first, much like it was for their Pac-12 regular season co-championship thanks to a 17-1 conference ledger. Additionally, the 32 wins are a program record.
It was the last game for seniors Clarendon, Caldwell and Pierre, each of whom will have a lasting impact on the Golden Bears' women's basketball program. Clarendon led all Cal scorers tonight with 17 points and finished her career as the No. 4 scorer in Golden Bear history. Caldwell's nine rebounds tonight gave her entrance into the exclusive 1,000-point, 1,000-rebound club, becoming just the third Cal player to do so (Brandon is not far behind with 990 points and 1,032 rebounds). Pierre, a stout defender, again played solid on-ball defense and hit the jumper that gave Cal the lead for more than 30 uninterrupted minutes of game action.
"There is so much good from our season. So many good things came out of it, so to hold your head down now would be a shameful thing," Clarendon said after the game. "We aren't just some Cinderella story; we want Cal basketball to be great so it's awesome to set the legacy for the program."
Louisville advances to its second national championship game and will face Connecticut Tuesday night.