NEW ORLEANS – Even Louisville's own players are finding their stunning run to the women's NCAA national championship game a little hard to believe.
"It doesn't feel realistic right now. It hasn't set in yet," Cardinals leading scorer Shoni Schimmel said. "It's just so exciting and we've worked so hard to get here, and just like we're ready to take on anything."
Schimmel didn't have one of her better games in Sunday night's NCAA semifinal against California. She started 1 for 7, but settled down in the second half and hit a clutch transition jumper with about two minutes left and finished with 10 points as Louisville found a way to erase a 10-point halftime deficit en route to a 64-57 victory.
The upstart Cardinals (29-8) got 18 points — all on 3-pointers — from Antonita Slaughter and 17 from Bria Smith on 6 of 7 shooting to pull out only the latest game they weren't supposed to win.
The result ensured an all-Big East Conference final in the league's last season in its current form: Louisville will play Connecticut, which beat Notre Dame 83-65, one night after the Louisville men's team plays Michigan for the championship.
"This is literally every basketball player's dream, to be in a national championship," Smith said. "So it feels unreal, but I think we're ready for it."
In the Oklahoma City Regional semifinal, there was a stunning take-down of defending national champion Baylor, a team led by AP Player of the Yeat Brittney Griner. Next, Louisville knocked off one of the most storied programs in women's college basketball history in Tennessee.
Now Louisville, seeded fifth in its region, is the first team seeded lower than fourth to win a Final Four game.
"We're playing our best basketball at the end of the year and that's all that matters," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We're figuring out a way to pull them out."
Layshia Clarendon scored 17 for Cal (32-4), which had won the Spokane Region as a second seed. Gennifer Brandon added 12 points for the Golden Bears and Brittany Boyd had 10.
"Credit Louisville, which obviously has been really hot," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "They outfought us in the second half."
Schimmel's last hoop gave Louisville a 57-54 lead with 2:06 left.
Clarendon responded with a 3 from the left wing 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 missing all of 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.
"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."
Louisville went into halftime trailing 37-27, but re-emerged composed and quickly narrowed its 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 was 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 when Hammond's free throws made it 53-52 with 3:40 left.
"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,'" Walz said.
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 Schimmel 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.