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.
And Monday, before a crowd expected to hover near the 22,000 capacity of the KFC Yum! Center, the best two teams in the AAC will play for at least a share of its first regular-season championship.
“They want a share of the title and they are going to have to beat us to get it,” Geno Auriemma said. “We don’t share very well here at Connecticut. We not into have parades if you tie for a league championship.
“But if we want to win it outright, we have to beat a really good team on its home court in front of a [close to] sold-out building. And that’s the way it should be
If No.1 UConn (30-0, 17-0) wins, as it did against Louisville on Feb. 9 at Gampel Pavilion, the title and first tournament seed will go to the Huskies.
Should No. 3 Louisville (27-2, 16-1) win, and it has lost 14 straight to the Huskies since 2006, a share of the title will go to the Cardinals.
At that point, a coin flip held in the building to immediately determine who will be the first seed in the postseason tournament that begins Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Breanna Stewart said. “There’s going to be 20,000 people there cheering for someone. You might not like the boos, but its going to be a great environment and a big game we are will be ready for.”
This will be Louisville’s Senior Night, a time to say goodbye to a great class led by guard Shoni Schimmel, whose has scored 2,027 points in her career – second only to Angel McCoughtry.
The Cardinals have won five straight since its 81-64 loss to UConn. It had won a program-record 16 straight before that following its only other loss of the season to Kentucky on Dec. 1.
“I am sure Louisville is going to be off-the-charts ready to play,” Auriemma said.
And this time, the Cardinals will guard Bria Smith back. She missed the Feb. 9 game with tendonitis of the knee.
“We’re going to learn from this game,” Shoni Schimmel said after that loss. “We’ll get them back at our place and have all our pieces. We’re looking forward to play them again.”
Walz knows that defeating UConn takes more than physical skill. It takes moving the game into position to win it in the late stage.
“You have to play a perfect game. It’s an absolute battle,” Walz said. “You’ve got to have 40 minutes of mentally tough basketball. Not just physically, but you’ve got to be into every day.”
The Huskies will benefit from having Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis somewhat more game ready. She played 27 minutes in Saturday’s win over Rutgers, scoring just seven points.
“This is not unlike golf,” Auriemma said. “You can practice all you want, but you need to play in tournaments; play basketball games to be in basketball shape. She looked good at times and at other times she did. But she will play better [Monday].”
The Huskies did not win the regular-season title in either of its final two years in the Big East. Notre Dame did both times, wrapping up last year’s title in epic three overtime fashion in South Bend, Ind.
“We prepare every day to win games like this,” said Bria Hartley, whose 20-point performance Saturday against Rutgers was her fourth straight. “We are right there now. We want to make sure we win the conference out right.
“Not winning it [the regular-season] felt kind of weird the last two seasons. The UConn tradition usually includes winning it every single year. The last two years have kind of been a disappointment. This year, we want to make sure we go out the right way.”
Hartley, who celebrated her Senior Day, is averaging 19.9 points in her last 10 games and shooting 55.0 percent from the field (72-for-131).
The Cardinals’ 17-point loss to the Huskies was the closest any AAC team has come to the Huskies this season.
And there is a chance, especially should UConn win Monday and again in a likely AAC Tournament title game March 10 at Mohegan Sun, that the Huskies could be sent to Louisville by the NCAA for possible Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games as that region’s top seed.