Rabalais: Louisville women found a way to win

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Louisville's bench celebrates in the closing seconds of its 64-57 win over California in the NCAA Final Four game in the New Orleans Arena on Sunday, April 7, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Louisville's bench celebrates in the closing seconds of its 64-57 win over California in the NCAA Final Four game in the New Orleans Arena on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

By Scott Rabalais

Advocate sportswriter

Somebody’s getting tattooed.

Maybe it’s Shoni and Jude Schimmel’s parents, who after 28 years and eight kids finally agreed to get married if their daughters’ Louisville team upset mighty Baylor in the Sweet 16.

Maybe it’s Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who dresses like a lumberjack (he hates coats and ties) but keeps cutting down highly ranked opponents in this year’s NCAA tournament as well as his slickly dressed men’s counterpart, Rick Pitino.

Maybe it’s going to be Connecticut, which smacked around Notre Dame 83-65 in Sunday’s late semifinal and took the measure of Louisville 72-58 in their only meeting back on Jan. 15.

“To me, a little dot (with a pen) is a tattoo,” Walz said. “That’s what I’m planning on doing. Please don’t tell them.”

Sorry, Coach. No secrets here. Your team has seen to that by the way it’s playing, even if the way it’s playing defies description.

Of the four teams in this year’s Women’s Final Four, the Cardinals frankly look the least physically impressive. But they’ve got attitude, bravado and, most importantly, confidence borne out of eliminating the tournament’s prohibitive favorite in the regional semifinals that says no challenge is too great.

Take for example Louisville’s 64-57 semifinal win Sunday over California. The Cardinals trailed 37-27 at halftime and were getting shredded by the two things the Golden Bears do best: rebounding (a huge 23-11 Cal edge) and second-chance points (a 10-1 Cal advantage).

No panic at all in Louisville, though. It roared back and ended up obliterating Cal in the second half, outscoring the Bears 37-20 as though a victory was in the Cards all along.

“I can’t even put into words how proud I am for the adversity that we’ve faced this entire season with our injuries,” Walz said of his team, which has gotten little or no output from three potential starters. “We just chipped away and chipped away and chipped away. And once we took the lead, I knew. I could see it in our kids eyes, the excitement that, ‘Hey, we can do this. We’re gonna do this.’ ”

Once they did it, though, this team of giant killers was awed a bit by the enormity of what it just accomplished.

“This is literally every player’s dream,” said guard Bria Smith, who scored 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting. “It feels unreal, but I think we’re ready for it.”

A lot of doubters won’t be so sure. The Cardinals could do it to Cal, but can they keep UConn from an appointment with an eighth national title? The last time they got this far, UConn mercilessly pounded Louisville 76-54 in the 2009 championship game.

Again, the odds seem long. The Cardinals are without question the definitive underdog. And yet …

It sounds simplistic, but if Louisville can beat Baylor, it can beat UConn. Maybe even beat Michigan’s men on Monday night in Atlanta just for laughs.

Why? Because the Cardinals women are so adept at taking away the thing the other team does best.

With Baylor, it was denying Griner. With Cal, it was stifling the Bears’ transition game and keeping them off the boards — despite a 38-26 rebounding deficit overall — in the final crucial two minutes when Louisville broke a 57-57 tie to score the final seven points.

There wasn’t a lot of emotion from Cal’s coach or players after their first Women’s Final Four run was over. Perhaps it was the suddenness of the defeat, a game which was theirs to win after star guard Layshia Clarendon splashed a 3-pointer to tie it with 1:51 remaining.

“I said to our team in the locker room that we can be disappointed about a half that we wish we had back,” coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “We could be disappointed not to be playing Tuesday night.

“But I’m going to think about that for two minutes, and for the next 10,000 minutes I’m going to think about what this group did for the University of California.”

Meanwhile, what a grand way to go out for the Big East Conference. It’s disintegrating because it couldn’t cut it as a football league, but it’s guaranteed a women’s championship Tuesday and may be celebrating an NCAA men’s title Monday as well.

Walz, who jokingly said the Louisville men were feeding off his team’s success, said his Cardinals would gather to watch the men’s final Monday. But first he planned to let his players celebrate on Bourbon Street until 2 a.m. if they felt like it.

“It might be 1:30,” he said.

So you know, Jeff, there are probably tattoo parlors open in the French Quarter that late.

Just in case you need one Tuesday night.