By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS — Louisville has really relished being the underdog. So much so that coach Jeff Walz doesn’t want to hear about how the Cardinals have that team-of-destiny air about them heading into the women’s Final Four.
Yet, is there any other way to see Louisville after it derailed AP Player of the Year Brittney Griner and defending national champion Baylor, and then upset Tennessee — the most storied program in the sport?
Surely they couldn’t be the underdogs against Final Four newcomer California in today’s national semifinals (12:30 p.m. HST, ESPN). Don’t tell that to Walz.
“No one expects us to win now,” Walz insisted. “I’m sorry, we’re seeded fifth. So my thing is, I know we won two games, but we’re seeded fifth, and if they expected us to win, we’d be seeded second or third.”
California, Walz noted, “is a team that’s 32-3, that beat Stanford. … They’re a great basketball team, so we’re going to have to figure out a way.”
And while destiny may be on Louisville’s side, history is not. No team seeded worse than fourth has ever won a national semifinal game.
The Golden Bears were the No. 2 seed in the Spokane region and did not have to play their Pac-12 rivals, top-seeded Stanford in the NCAA tournament. Georgia took care of the Cardinal in the regional semifinal. The Lady Bulldogs also led Cal late in regulation before the Bears stormed back to force overtime and pull out a three-point victory.
Neither Cal nor Louisville were widely expected to make it this far, although President Obama saw something in the Golden Bears when he placed them in his Final Four bracket. Obama also had the Louisville’s men’s program making the Final Four. The school became the 10th to have both programs competing in the national semifinals.
Now the women’s team or Cal will have a spot in the national championship game against either Connecticut (33-4) or Notre Dame (35-1).
“I definitely agree that a lot has to go right in order to get to this point, but I also think there’s a huge impact that our players have in making things go right,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “The teams that were in front of us at each stage were really formidable and we had to get the job done.”
Cal’s matchup with Louisville has the promise of an entertaining game at the very least. Both teams talk about how they like to have fun and play loose.
Walz, who has a slight speech impediment, doesn’t mind when his players poke fun at the way he talks. He also won’t yank rising star Shoni Schimmel (14.4 points per game) off the court when she misses a crazy shot because he doesn’t want to suppress the creativity of his talented players.
Gottlieb, too, embraces players who express themselves individually. She doesn’t criticize her leading scorer, 5-foot-9 senior guard Layshia Clarendon (16.4 points per game), for attracting attention to herself by wearing her hair in a dyed blond mohawk.
“They’re individuals,” Gottlieb said. “I would say it is a group that genuinely enjoys life and playing college basketball.”
They are also highly competitive, though. Asked where they were during last season’s Final Four, both Clarendon and 6-3 Cal center Talia Caldwell said they did not watch the games because they were so bitter about not being there themselves.
“I was just disgusted seeing all those teams. I felt like we should have been there, even last year, and we would have competed and could have won the whole thing,” said Caldwell, who averages 9.1 points and 7.3 rebounds. “So it just motivated I know me personally for next year and I wanted to work on my game.”
To beat Louisville, Cal may have to adopt the kind of physical, Big East defensive play that can disrupt an opponents’ shooting rhythm. The Cardinals have been shooting 50 percent in the tournament, and upset Baylor simply by outscoring them, 82-81, on the strength of 16 made 3s on 25 attempts (64 percent). Schimmel made 5 of 8 3s and Antonita Slaughter hitting 7 of 9.
With his team shooting like that, Walz deflected compliments regarding his team’s defense against Baylor and its star center, Griner.
“Instead of worrying about how we guarded Brittney … maybe everybody should start asking how do we score 82, because there’s not been one team in the four years that Brittney Griner was at Baylor that scored more than 82 points,” Walz said.
That is precisely what Gottlieb has been trying to figure out.
“We care about what they’re running and how they’re getting those open looks,” Gottlieb said. “And, yeah, sure, I’m cognizant of the fact they’re hot. And why are they hot? And what do we need to cool that down? We talk to our players about that, but it becomes more about specifics of how we want to defend them or what they’ve been doing well and not.”
As to the question of destiny, Gottlieb added, “Our kids pretty much think we’ve got a good thing going, too.”