NEW ORLEANS — They’ve been underdogs so long that they relish continuing in the role even at the Final Four, and especially after dispatching one of the biggest names in the sport.
The Louisville Cardinals — Undercards? — do have a -2 figure beside their name on at least one Las Vegas sports betting line going into Sunday’s national semifinal game against California.
For the Golden Bears, reaching the Final Four for the first time isn’t as much as a surprise as an affirmation that women’s basketball in the Bay Area doesn’t have to be synonymous with Stanford.
Cal faces Louisville in what’s considered the undercard, both in scheduling and marquée appeal. But being regarded merely as the opening act for UConn-Notre Dame IV disregards what the two programs, and the two coaches in particular, represent for the long-term future of the sport.
UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame have 19 Final Four trips and eight NCAA titles combined in a rivalry that will be contested for the fourth time this season — with all previous games Notre Dame wins — and the last time in the soon-to-be-dismantled Big East.
But Cal’s Lindsay Gottlieb and Louisville’s Jeff Walz personify a younger, rapidly ascending generation of coaching stars in a sport that has been dominated by a small handful of icons for years.
In her second season in Berkeley, Gottlieb has pulled together a southern California-centric core of players who have endured plenty of heartbreak away from the court, and who aren’t shy about personal expression.
“I’m very secure in the fact that they play for the California across their chest,” said Gottlieb, from a family of lawyers in Scarsdale, Calif. “I’m okay that one of them has a mohawk (starting guard Layshia Clarendon) and another one has pink braids (starting forward Gennifer Brandon). It’s a really unique group that is just comfortable in their own skin and playing for Cal.”
While Walz has been to the Final Four before — the Cardinals fell to UConn in the 2009 NCAA title game — Louisville’s stunning 82-81 upset of defending NCAA champion Baylor and player of the year Brittney Griner in the Sweet 16 still prompted many of the questions during Saturday’s official press conference.
Walz, 41, could have gone all Belichick and rattled off a load of coach-speak and refused to talk about any opponent but the next one. But in savoring the long afterglow of what may be the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament, Walz revealed a glimpse of a coaching style that’s as open and free and easy as it is intense and demanding.
Starting with the open-collar shirts on the sideline, a dramatic difference from Rick Pitino’s pricey Italian threads, because “I can’t stand to wear a suit and a tie.”
“It’s comfortable, I enjoy it,” Walz said of his sartorial preference. “And I’m going to continue to wear it. I’m trying to start a trend, it just hasn’t picked up.”
But it’s his work with high-maintenance, big-personality players that’s notable. While Walz inherited Angel McCoughtry, the mercurial All-American and centerpiece of the 2009 team, he recruited openly cocky junior guard Shoni Schimmel, who hails from the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon.
In the heat of an already-heated game against Baylor, Schimmel drove on the break against Griner, whipped out a behind-the-back dribble, then flipped in an over-the-shoulder layup that scaled Griner’s reach and bounced off the glass and in. When Griner pulled herself up off the floor Schimmel met her, eye-to-eye, emitting something like a primal scream.
“I just had to do the little circus shot because I just mess around in practice sometimes doing it and it worked out for me,” she said.
Which is just fine with Walz, whose younger sister is Jamie Walz, a hotshot guard in her playing days who became a Kentucky high school basketball scoring legend. He said Schimmel’s maturity this season has led to better decision-making.
“She came in with flair, that’s what she does,” he said. “I understand how she plays. I recruited her. I let her play. I let kids play. I work them hard in practice but when it comes to the game, they’re going to take some shots that aren’t great shots. And that’s okay.”
It was 22 years ago at nearby Lakefront Arena that Auriemma and UConn experienced a Final Four for the first time. On Friday, he and McGraw gave Gottlieb what she called “the most genuine hugs” in joining some select company. When asked if he still enjoys it, Auriemma was wistful and sarcastic at the same time.
“Leading up to this is getting harder and harder and harder for me every year,” Auriemma said. “And Lindsay doesn’t know it yet, but 10 years from now she’s going to look back on this this year and go, ‘Man, that’s when it all turned for me. I used to love this game.”