Women’s Final Four teams bounce into New Orleans

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Members of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team arrive at the JW Marriott for the Women's Final Four in New Orleans, Thursday, including Caroline Doty, center, and Kelly Faris, left.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Members of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team arrive at the JW Marriott for the Women's Final Four in New Orleans, Thursday, including Caroline Doty, center, and Kelly Faris, left.

NEW ORLEANS — Get ready for beads, beignets and women’s basketball.

Well, hold dessert until after the title game.

Teams participating in this weekend’s Women’s Final Four at New Orleans Arena arrived in town Thursday, the start of a hefty buildup to Sunday’s semifinals and Tuesday’s title game.

“We’re going to have our normal food that’s on our menu,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said, laughing. “But I’m going to let them try everything. That’s what we’re here for.”

And to win a championship. Only one team will leave New Orleans in the same high spirits it arrived in Thursday.

Louisville (28-8), a fifth seed, will play California (32-3), a No. 2. UConn (34-4), playing in its third NCAA semifinals in the city, will play Notre Dame (35-1); both are No. 1 seeds.

“The people down here are great,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, a seven-time NCAA champion. “I hope we’re the home team this weekend.”

As is tradition, commemorative beads were given to players as they walked past small contingents of fans and local greeters at their hotels. Louisville checked in to its downtown hotel, allowing fans James and Debbie Peden, on vacation in New Orleans, to welcome the team.

More than six hours away in Atlanta, the Louisville men’s team — joined by a sizable portion of the school’s fan base — is preparing to play in the national semifinals against Wichita State.

“We said everybody is going to be in Atlanta for the men’s game, (so) let’s go show our support for the girls,” said James Peden, who donned a black Louisville pullover.

Walz said he was told some fans planned to leave Atlanta on Saturday and reach New Orleans in time for the women’s semifinal Sunday. That would add another layer of excitement to a squad that already has defied expectations.

Louisville advanced Saturday by defeating top-seeded Baylor, which was led by Brittney Griner — the second-highest scorer in NCAA history. Griner was held to 14 points, and Louisville’s Monique Reid made two free throws with 2.6 seconds left for an 82-81 victory.

Now it’s time for another new high. The Cardinals are back in the Women’s Final Four for the second time in five seasons.

“I want our players to be able to enjoy the experience, soak in all of it,” Walz said. “When it comes to be time to practice and play, we’ll be ready.”

Cal senior Layshia Clarendon talked about beignets so much that the team will make a trip together to Cafe Du Monde. When they arrived at the hotel, king cake was waiting for them.

Auriemma remembered the 1991 Final Four at UNO’s Lakefront Arena — before the event became a weeklong experience, similar to the men’s Final Four.

“I could have never imagined,” he said. “But it goes to show you the level of the play that the players have, and coaches are getting better for it to become the event that it is.”