NEW ORLEANS —
“We come out, we executed perfectly to start the second half,” Walz said. “Once we took the lead, I could see it in our kids’ eyes, the excitement, ‘Hey, we can do this, we’re going to do this.’
“We’re playing our best basketball at the end of the year and that’s all that matters,” Walz added. “We’re figuring out a way to pull them out.”
Before tip-off, Walz had the relaxed look of a coach who had been there before, which of course he had in 2009, when Louisville climbed out of a 12-point hole to beat Oklahoma State in the national semifinals before falling to Connecticut in the title game. He walked over to the Cal bench for a friendly chat with Gottlieb, giving her a hug before he walked back toward his bench, and then went across the court to welcome some fans in the front row.
Walz’s team also appeared more composed in the first few minutes, racing to an 8-2 lead with the help of Slaughter’s first 3 and a pair of layups by Smith. Smith’s third basket inside the first five minutes gave Louisville a 10-6 lead, then Cal started to look more comfortable.
Talia Caldwell’s putback marked the beginning of a 12-1 run, capped by Clarendon’s transition jumper that gave the Golden Bears an 18-11 lead.
Jude Schimmel’s 3 got Louisville as close as 25-22 midway through the half, but the Cardinals had trouble keeping pace while Shoni Schimmel, their leading scorer, missed six of her first seven shots.
Cal, which had won with strong rebounding all season, also controlled the game in that department, 23-11 overall and 8-3 in offensive rebounds in the first half. Complicating matters for Louisville was that Hammond, their leading rebounder (6.5 per game), sat out most of the half with two fouls.