When Layshia Clarendon sank a game-tying rainbow 3 from the left wing with 1:51, it looked like California might have the composure to halt Louisville's remarkable run in the women's NCAA tournament.
Then everything went wrong for the Golden Bears, who left the Final Four after one game as the Cardinals' third straight upset victim, joining defending national champion Baylor and Tennessee.
"I'll give it to Louisville, they outplayed us," Cal guard Brittany Boyd said. "It seemed like they wanted it more."
Antonita Slaughter scored 18 points on six 3-pointers and Louisville clawed back from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat California 64-57 in the national semifinals Sunday night. Bria Smith scored 17 on 6 of 7 shooting for the Cardinals (29-8), who were a No. 5 seed and became the first team seeded worse than fourth to win a Final Four game.
The result ensures an all-Big East Conference final in the league's last season in its current form, with Louisville meeting the winner of the other semifinal between Notre Dame and Connecticut on Tuesday night — one night after the Louisville men's team plays Michigan for the championship.
"Right now anything can happen," Walz said. "Why not us?"
Layshia Clarendon scored 17 for Cal (32-4), which had won the Spokane Region as a second seed. Gennifer Brandon added 12 for the Golden Bears and Boyd added 10 points.
"Credit Louisville, which obviously has been really hot," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "A stat sheet doesn't always tell the story of the game, but I think this one does. We didn't score in the second half. They totally affected our pace."
Shoni Schimmel, who had been one of the stars of the tournament, struggled early for Louisville, but finished with 10 points, including a clutch transition pull-up that gave Louisville a 57-54 lead with 2:06 left.
Clarendon responded with a left win 3 of her own to tie it, but Sara Hammond, playing with four fouls for the last 7:20, gave the Cardinals the lead for good with a strong move inside as she was fouled. Suddenly, Cal was forcing desperate 3s and not hitting them.
After shooting 58. 6 percent (17 of 29) in the first half, Cal shot only 30 percent (9 of 30) in the second, negating the Bears' 38-26 advantage in rebounds. Cal also turned the ball over 19 times.
"In the first half we got out a lot on the run. We didn't get a chance to run at all (in the second half) because we weren't getting stops," Clarendon said. "We made a lot of mistakes. It's not like we played somebody who was too good and just flat out beat us."
On Saturday night, the Louisville's men's team had to erase a 12-point second-half deficit against Wichita State, so the women didn't need much inspiration when they went into halftime trailing Cal 37-27. They came out and quickly narrowed their deficit with a 7-0 run that began with Schimmel's 3. Smith added a mid-range jumper and Hammond scored inside to make it 37-34.
Cal went back up 47-39 when Clarendon spun into the lane for a pull-up jumper, but the Cardinals then scored the next seven points, starting with Slaughter's deep 3 and ending with Jude Schimmel's free throws that made it as close as 47-46.
The Cardinals finally pulled back into the lead, for the first time since the score was 10-8, when Hammond's free throws made it 53-52 with 3:40 left.
Cal fell behind 10-6 in the a shaky first few minutes, but then took command for the rest of the opening half.
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 has won with strong rebounding all season, also controlled the game in that department, 23-11 overall and 8-3 in offensive rebounds. Complicating matters for Louisville was that Hammond, their leading rebounder (6.5 per game), sat out most of the first half with two fouls.
If only the last 20 minutes had gone as well for Cal, the Bears might in their first ever national title game.
"What I said to our team in the locker room is that we can be disappointed about a half a basketball that we wish we had back. We could be disappointed to not be playing on Tuesday night," Gottlieb said. "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."