It is the great misfortune of Louisville to operate in this time and place; the Big East, the American Athletic Conference, the era of UConn. It must be disheartening.
There’s really nothing fair about it. The Cardinals have played in two national championship games in seven years. They have played in conference championships. They have produced Angel McCoughtry and Shoni Schimmel. Their young coach, Jeff Walz, is about to embark on his USA Basketball career.
It’s been quite the program, ranked third nationally, winner of 30 games this season, a fresh powerhouse in sport grown stale.
There is only one thing the Cardinals haven’t been able to do, no matter how hard they try, the venue they play, what motivational fires they flame. They can’t beat UConn. And until they do, they can’t get what they need.
Well, they didn’t beat them Monday in the first AAC Championship game at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Nope, not even close.
Scoring the first eight points in the opening 1:17 set the scene UConn’s scorching of the Cardinals, 72-52, before a boisterous, partisan crowd at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
No. 1 UCONN WOMEN at No. 3 LOUISVILLE
Site: KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.
Time: 7 p.m.
TV: ESPN2 (Beth Mowins and Stephanie White)
Radio: WTIC-AM 1080, WILI-AM 1400 (Bob Joyce and Debbie Fiske)
Series history: UConn, 14-1
Last meeting: UConn, 81-64, Feb. 9, 2014, Gampel Pavilion
Streaks: UConn W36; Louisville W5
When Notre Dame left the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference after last season, it ended what was the most compelling series in women’s college basketball.
It also left UConn behind to fend for itself in the new American Athletic Conference, where new rivalries would likely take years to shape and fuel.
Of course, there was one exception – Louisville.
For this season only, before the Cardinals also leave for the ACC, the Cardinals promised to provide the kind of conference competition the Huskies had grown accustomed to from Notre Dame.
Not that Louisville and UConn haven’t already had their own moments; two national champion game meetings (2009 and 20013) tend to leave their mark.
Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz will be an assistant for the 2014 U18 National Team which will play in FIBA Americas Championship with teams from two continents and the Caribbean. The top four teams then advance to the 2015 U19 World Championship.
“I am honored to have been selected to represent USA basketball as an assistant coach for the U18 Women’s National Team,” Walz said. “Since beginning in this profession, the realization of this endeavor has been a life-long ambition. I am thrilled to be amongst some of the greatest collegiate coaches and hope to contribute both on and off the court. I appreciate USA Basketball for recognizing my passion and will work diligently to help mentor and coach some of the most talented young women in the game.”
South Carolina’s Dawn Stanley is the team’s head coach and and Michigan’s Kim Barnes-Arico another assistant with Walz.
Members of the U18 team will be determined at USA Basketball’s trials this May.
One of the most entertaining aspects of the gone-but-not-forgotten series with Notre Dame was listening to Geno Auriemma describe, in his own unique way, his feeling that the Irish got every imaginable foul call during the reign of Skylar Diggins under the Golden Dome.
No one knows how to plant subtle messages better than Auriemma. And when it came to Notre Dame he irrigated acres for the benefit of officials, past, present and future; for no other reason than to just make them aware of the situation, should it arise again.
He did it because he was acutely aware that how games with Notre Dame were called would have a direct impact on UConn’s ability to win them. Made perfect sense – and great listening.
No, this wasn’t Notre Dame. But that’s only because this Louisville series barely had time to marinate before realignment pulled it out of the brine by sending the Cardinals to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
But in terms of now, in this somewhat underwhelming first season of competition in The American, it may not get any better than what the sellout at Gampel Pavilion saw on Sunday.
In a game between conference unbeatens, No. 1 UConn maintained its perch with a 81-64 win. The Huskies have now dismantled eight Top 25 teams this season.
The loss ended No. 4 Louisville’s 16-game winning streak (23-2, 11-1), dating to its only previous loss at Kentucky on Dec. 1. The win was the 31st straight for UConn (25-0, 12-0) the fifth longest in program record, but still light years from the standard (90).
The Huskies, who never trailed, had five players in double-figures for the second straight game. But they were led by another seminal performance by sophomore Breanna Stewart.
Stewart was as smooth as she was sensational, scoring xx points with wxx rebounds for her sixth double-double of the season..
She was ably accompanied by the other four starters: Moriah Jefferson, swift as always, scored 18 points. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 13. And Bria Hartley (12 points, seven rebounds) and Stefanie Dolson (12 points, nine rebounds) were right behind.
Asia Taylor led the Cardinals with 18 points. Sara Hammond added 11. But senior guard Shoni Schimmel, the Cardinals leading scorer, was held to nine (4 of 15).
But the last thing UConn can afford this season happened did with 18.7 seconds to play in the first half.
Mosqueda-Lewis, who missed eight games earlier this season with nerve compression in her right elbow, suffered a left elbow contusion in another collision under the same basket she was hurt on Nov. 11 against Stanford.
On the tail end of a give-and-go, after already scoring 13 points, she slammed to the floor on contact falling awkwardly on her left arm. She immediately grabbed her elbow and after a few moments was helped off the floor.
Mosqueda-Lewis, an All-American last season, was just coming into her own again. Sunday was her fourth straight game in double-figure points. And her loss left the Huskies with just six scholarship players – temporarily.
Kiah Stokes started the second half in Mosqueda-Lewis’ spot. But with 13:56 to play, her left elbow wrapped and braced, she returned to the game. She gave it her best, even took a shot. But she did not score another point.
And almost on queue, the Huskies began to expand their lead. They made seven straight field goals, including threes from Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Hartley, to take a 64-45 lead with 11:38 to play.
With a few notable exceptions, this essentially was a rematch of last year’s national championship game in New Orleans, one the Huskies won with great ease. But there were some major differences
Louisville was without junior guard Bria Smith, one of their focal points, and junior forward Shawnta’ Dyer. The Huskies were again without Morgan Tuck and Brianna Banks.
But what remained for both teams was formidable; a sneak peak at what should be the bulk of The American’s first all-star team.
And the game equaled its billing; intensely played and contested until UConn’s big second-half push.
The Huskies led 44-33 at the end of the first half, led by Stewart’s 16 points. After taking an initial 19-9 lead, the Cardinals went on a run to cut the lead to 21-18 on a three by Antonita Slaughter.
Still, there was more to it than the scoreboard. Walz was into it from the start, contesting calls with both the game officials and Barbara Jacobs, the head of The American’s officials, who was sitting five feet to his right on press row.
His commentary built in intensity until he was called for a technical. Mosqueda-Lewis’ two free throws gave UConn a 44-29 lead.
Louisville was one of Saniya Chong’s major suitors when during her All-American high school career. And UConn’s recruitment of her made perfect sense to Cardinals coach Jeff Walz.
“UConn does a great job of not just going after the top player in the country every year,” Walz said. “We went to Ossining, N.Y., to see Saniya Chong play. And when you looked at her, you thought; here’s a shooter who understands the game. But if you wanted her to be your go-to player, then maybe a school [at a level lower than UConn] may have not been the best place for her. But she is awfully good at everything that she does. She reminds me very much of Mel Thomas.”
Back in the day, as Geno Auriemma likes to say, losing key regular-season conference games meant almost certain trouble for upstart programs like the one he inherited at UConn in 1985.
The landscape was different. The NCAA Tournament was smaller. The way the selection committee viewed potential participants certainly was more provincial.
That’s why beating the Big East establishment during his first six years was so important to Auriemma’s master plan. In most years it was an absolute necessity.
“In the late 1980s, we knew that if we didn’t win the Big East championship, there was a pretty good chance we weren’t going to the NCAA Tournament,” Auriemma said. “You had to beat Providence and Villanova, especially Villanova, the one team it just seemed we couldn’t get over the hump with.
“Now, something like that doesn’t prevent you from playing for the national championship. But back then, if we couldn’t beat Villanova, we couldn’t even play for the Big East championship.”
Since becoming Louisville’s coach in 2007, Jeff Walz has done a masterful job imposing his blue collar, open collar style on a program that was basically faceless before he arrived.
In just six seasons, the Cardinals have been to five NCAA Tournaments and two national championship games, a evolutionary pace exceeding the one laid down by Geno Auriemma at UConn after his arrival in 1985-86.
“We’ve well exceeded our original expectations,” Walz said. “The program had never been past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. We are 15-5 in our five NCAA appearances.
“In the previous years, the program was 3-11 in its 11 appearances. We had to change the culture, change the expectations. And although we are going to graduate a very talented class after this season, we have another one coming in that we are excited.”
Great news from Louisville coach Jeff Walz this afternoon as we all prepare for Sunday’s showdown between No. 1 UConn and No. 4 Louisville at Gampel Pavilion. The game will be for first place in The American between the only two teams without a conference loss so far.
Although Louisville is leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference after the season, Walz says that there have already been substantive talks about a multiple-year deal to play again, likely beginning in 2015-16. Why is this important? Duh? Without Notre Dame, Rutgers and Louisville around next year, UConn is going to need a strong non-conference schedule to keep its attention span in tact – perhaps forever.
The Notre Dame series begins again next year in South Bend. And now Louisville, who has twice lost to UConn in national championship games in the last five years, will likely be back, too.