NEW ORLEANS — Perhaps the Cal women’s basketball team tempted fate one too many times.
After taking a 10-point lead over Louisville (29-8) heading into halftime in the New Orleans Arena Sunday afternoon, the Bears slowly fell apart in the second half. They eventually succumbed to the Cardinals, 64-57, in the program’s first ever Final Four appearance.
Cal’s road to New Orleans was no smooth waltz. From a 82-78 overtime win against South Florida in the second round to the 65-62 comeback victory against Georgia in the Elite Eight, the Bears (32-4) kept their games too close for comfort.
But the Bears always pulled through, concocting something late in the game to pull ahead of the opponents. Cal played catch-up basketball all the way to the Final Four.
When the Bears took a 37-27 lead to halftime on Sunday afternoon, they were in uncharted territory. Cal played its best basketball in the tournament, shooting 58.6 percent from the floor and locking down the Cardinals defensively.
Then, in the second half, the Bears unraveled under Louisville’s relentless 3-point shooting and defensive pressure. The 10-point lead slowly evaporated, and at the three-minute mark Louisville took the lead.
It was time for the Bears to play catch-up basketball once again. But they never could place the pieces together. Louisville was always one step ahead.
“They did what they do a little better than what we do (in the second half),” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
As a layup from Louisville guard Bria Smith with 2:46 remaining in the game gave the Cardinals its first lead since the first four minutes of the game, the Bears couldn’t attack the basket to take back the lead.
After cherry-picking easy layups in the first half, Cal was stuffed from the frontcourt, unable to produce any opportunities inside. Guards Layshia Clarendon and Brittany Boyd tried to pump the ball inside, but it only led to consecutive turnovers that blocked the Bears’ offensive flow altogether.
Despite outrebounding the Cardinals 38-26, Cal’s 19 turnovers was too much for the players to overcome.
“They were throwing a lot of junk defenses at us,” Clarendon said. “We turned the ball over, and they were picking up momentum. In the last two minutes, we got a little panicked.”
Clarendon did her best to keep the team in contention. The senior knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game at 57. It was Cal’s last glimmer of hope.
In her last game in a Cal uniform, Clarendon scored a team-high 17 points in an 8-for-18 shooting performance. Despite tallying nine points in the second half, her effectiveness as the primary scoring option declined due to Louisville’s nonstop, in-face defense.
In the last two minutes of the game, Cardinals forward Sara Hammond became the late bloomer that carried her team to the title game. Hammond — who was instrumental in locking down Baylor center Brittany Griner earlier in the tournament — was nullified for most of the game. In the first half, the sophomore forward scored zero points; in the second half, she scored nine.
After Hammond’s layup and a free throw gave Louisville a 60-57 lead, the Bears floundered offensively to find a way to close the gap. With only 30 seconds remaining, Gottlieb placed 3-point specialist Mikayla Lyles, who had not played in the game beforehand, on the court.
“We really wanted to run a that ran multiple options,” Gottlieb said. “We have an end-of-the-game play. We put the extra shooter out there to extend the defense.”
The ball for the season-deciding possession was intended to go to Clarendon. However, as Clarendon was tightly double-teamed, the ball went to Lyles’ hands to tie the game.
Lyles missed the open 3-point jumper, and Louisville rebounded the ball. She had one more 3-point attempt in the dying seconds when the game was virtually over, but she missed that as well.
“I’d take that look,” Gottlieb said, defending Lyles’ decision to shoot the all-important field goal.
Unlike Cal, Louisville lived and died by its 3-pointer, its main weapon of choice that brought them to the Final Four in the first place. As the team that knocked off women’s basketball Goliath Baylor with its 64 percent 3-point shooting performance, the Cardinals relied on long-distance shooters like Antonita Slaughter and Shoni Schimmel to keep the game close.
As fitting to her name, Slaughter was ruthless with her faraway sniper shots. She let the Cardinals with 18 points, all of which came from her six 3-point shots.
After shooting 1-for-7 in the first half, Schimmel scored 10 points in the game. Smith stepped into Schimmel’s role as the primary scoring option for Louisville with a 17-point performance.
From tip-off, Smith established herself as the primary scoring option for the Cardinals. Louisville started with a 8-2 start, with Smith scoring four of the eight points.
But Louisville’s dominance on the court was short-lived. Cal went on a 14-2 run that set the tone toward the Bears’ direction for the rest of the first half.
Contrasted with shooting 21 3-pointers in the Georgia game, Cal was more prudent and aggressive with the ball, choosing to drive in and find the open space near the post rather than taking the long jumper.
Boyd set the tone with her blistering pace down the court, driving head-on into the paint and relishing in contact with the Cardinal defender camping under the post.
As she did most of the season, Boyd walked a fine line between assertiveness and recklessness. The sophomore scored 10 points the whole game, mostly in fastbreak layups. However, she put herself in foul trouble in the first half and injured her back and fingers.
By the last minutes the game, Boyd became a non-factor in Cal’s offense.
After the game, Gottlieb and her players acknowledged they haven’t fully digested the pain of the loss. However, the Bears focused on talking about the legacy this season left for the future of the program.
In their eyes, luck and fate had no place establishing Cal as a West Coast powerhouse of college women’s basketball.
“We weren’t some Cinderella team who made a run this year,” Clarendon said. “This is what Cal basketball’s going to be.”