History likely to repeat for UConn in women's title game
UConn freshman center Breanna Stewart was still 14 months away from entering this world when Louisville last defeated Connecticut in women's basketball. That victory came on March 17, 1993, the first-ever meeting between the schools and the subsequent end of Louisville's dominance in the series. The Hartford Courant recap of Louisville's 74-71 win highlighted the late-game struggles of Rebecca Lobo, then a sophomore honorable mention All-America for the Huskies. Today, Lobo is a 39-year-old ESPN basketball analyst with four children.
Stewart, who turns 19 on Aug. 27, had no idea that the series had been so one-sided, and when told that Louisville had not beaten her program in 20 years, she was mildly perplexed. "I was not aware of that," Stewart said. "That's very interesting. But we're going to obviously take Louisville very seriously with everything they have done so far."
The eldest member of the opposing locker room was well aware of the history the series. "Nineteen-ninety three, right?" said Louisville fifth-year senior Mo Reid. "I was three."
Reid and her teammates have known nothing but losing to UConn. The Huskies have won 12 straight games in the series and the dominance of late has been as impressive as Brittney Griner's wingspan. Connecticut has outscored Louisville 534-314 in the last seven meetings and each of those wins has been by double digits. The closest Louisville has come to winning since 2009 was a 56-46 loss on Feb. 7, 2012. The biggest game of the series was also a Louisville loss: UConn won the 2009 national title game in a 76-54 runaway.
But Louisville has two things in abundance at the moment: momentum and belief. The Cardinals are also facing a conference rival, so they won't be intimated by Connecticut or its 7-0 mark in national title games under head coach Geno Auriemma. "They are playing at a level I have not seen them play at any time this year," said UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey, charged with the advance scouting on Louisville. "They are playing with an aggressiveness and a sense of confidence like teams that win championships."
Below, SI.com makes the case for each team in Tuesday night's (8:30 p.m. ET) title game at the New Orleans Arena:
History, for starters. UConn hasn't lost to Louisville in two decades and won by 14 points in January playing without Stewart (she suited up but sat with an sore ankle). The freshman has played at an All-America level since the Big East tournament and presents a matchup nightmare for Louisville; they don't have a player with her size and length. Most good teams have attempted to be physical with Stewart but she's a good athlete and the coaching staff has worked with her on moving without the ball to avoid contact. "Even if she had been playing in that game [in January], she was not [performing] at a very impressive level at that point," said Dailey of Stewart. "At this time, some benches get shorter, but ours has gotten stronger. "And we've lengthened it a little bit."
The Huskies are deep, with an eight-woman rotation that includes five players averaging more than 9.1 points. They also believe their conditioning is better than anyone in the country and want Louisville to be forced to defend multiple players. "We have more kids that can score than most teams," Dailey said.
Like Louisville, UConn wants a transition game; the Huskies are 27-1 in games in which they have scored 70 or more points this season. They also have some of the most efficient scorers in women's basketball. Stefanie Dolson is shooting .594 from the field (209-of-352), the second highest percentage behind only Griner. And sophomore guard-forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis has hit 55 percent of her three-point attempts this season (74-of-135).
But defense is where this team has won its seven titles, and UConn is holding teams in the tournament to 31 percent shooting from the field. The Huskies forced Notre Dame into its worst shooting performance of the year in the semifinals and their 12 blocks against the Irish set a new record for a Final Four game. "[Stewart] is just a great shot blocker," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I think that's the thing she does better than anything. She is someone that can really change your shots around the basket and she's playing much better offensively now, which gives them just another [weapon]."
Auriemma has reminded people this week that his team isn't exactly a Cinderella. They've lost only to Baylor and Notre Dame. "We won 30-some games and we beat the ACC champion by 30, the Big Ten champion by 30, the Pac-12 champion by 26 and the Southeast Conference champion by 30," Auriemma said. "We didn't sneak into the tournament. We just had to make a couple adjustments to how we thought, and get a couple kids to kind of step outside their little world they lived in. In terms of how much we've changed as a team, it looks like a lot on the outside to what you're seeing, but internally it wasn't that much."
The lowest seed (No. 5) ever to reach the title game has knocked off the tournament's top overall seed (Baylor) and a pair of No. 2s (Cal and Tennessee). It has also shown resolve under duress. Louisville trailed Cal by 10 at halftime but outworked and out-steeled their opponent in the second half. "They (UConn) have to worry about us because we are at the high of our run," said Louisville junior guard Shoni Schimmel, the team's best player. "Our team chemistry is outrageous right now."
Louisville runs a lot of offensive sets and junk defenses, and coach Jeff Walz's strategy is to identify mismatches. He'll run the same play multiple times if he sees an advantage, and he also runs a lot of back screens in an attempt to get his players easy baskets.
If there's one thing that will define Louisville on Tuesday night, it's transition. The Cardinals will push the ball against UConn because that will give them their best chance to win. That's good news for junior guard Antonita Slaughter. Against Cal, Slaughter was 6-of-10 from three-point range, a record for a women's Final Four game. In her last four games, Slaughter has made 22 three-pointers. "If we have a chance to win, it's not going to be a 60-55 game," Walz said. "It's got to be 84-83. We might have to try and get up into the 90s if we can. The only way we're going to do that is by shooting the basketball. We're going to shoot threes. It's not going to be a secret. But they're going to be out pressuring us, too. I've got a feeling they'll probably find where Antonita is."
Louisville has already toppled Griner so playing 6-5 Stefanie Dolson and the 6-4 Stewart won't be intimidating. "We've already played 6-8 (Griner)," said Schimmel. "Stewart kind of reminds me of Nita (Slaughter). She's not 6-4 but she can still play big. She guarded Griner and now she will probably guard Stewart."
UConn's coaches had a lot of nice things to say about Louisville's players including sophomore guard Jude Schimmel, the younger sister of Shoni, who rarely makes mistakes and controls the tempo when running the point off the bench. Reid will also give them an offensive jolt: She's averaged 9.3 points while playing only 18 minute per game because of her knee. Sophomore forward Sarah Hammond was recruited by UConn and has a nice scoring touch (10.7 points) around the basket.
If you believe in karma, Louisville is the pick. The men's basketball team defeated Michigan on Monday in Atlanta to win a national title and the football team defeated Florida 33-23 at the Sugar Bowl three months ago. "We're going to have to play better than we played against Baylor, better than we played against Tennessee, and Cal," Walz said. We're going to have to play 40 minutes of pretty much perfect basketball, which I think we can. I told our kids if we had to play Baylor a best of seven, I don't think we're going to win that series. But we don't have to. We've got to play one night, 40 minutes."
UConn. Defensively, UConn will contest each Louisville possession and the three-pointers that have fallen for the Cardinals this tournament won't come as easy. They'll also have no answer for Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis. It's been a magical run but midnight is coming for Louisville. The call here is the Huskies by double digits.