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.
After winning 18 tournament championships in the Big East, the Huskies added another in their new world, one they conquered with frightening efficiency this season. They won their first 18 AAC games this season by an average of 37.4 points.
Next Monday, the NCAA’s selection committee will assign a region to this No. 1 seed. The road to what would be a ninth national championship will begin at Gampel Pavilion with first- and second-round games on March 23 and 25.
The Huskies were again led by sophomore Breanna Stewart. The AAC’s Player fo the Year, the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, scored 20 points with nine rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots.
Bria Hartley added 16 points. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 13 points. And Stefanie Dolson had 10 points and 16 rebounds, her 12th double-double of the season.
The Cardinals (30-4) were led by senior Shoni Schimmel. She scored 20 points with seven rebounds, but she was 7 of 25 from the field, 4-for-16 from three.
Three of Louisville’s four losses this season have been to UConn (34-0), which has now won 40 straight.
This was the third meeting to the season between the teams. The second was played March 3 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. And despite the 20-point loss, the Cardinals did land the first punches, riding the wave of adrenaline to a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes. It was the largest deficit UConn faced all season.
Of course, once the juice drained, the Huskies held the Cardinals to just 13 field goals and 41 points in the last 38 minutes.
UConn would have none of that this time.
During Sunday’s semifinal win over Rutgers, the Huskies scored the first 13 points and then cruised the left lane for a 83-57 lead. This time, the ontslaught began with three-pointers from Stewart and Hartley and a hoop by Mosqueda-Lewis in the first 77 seconds.
It was 8-0. The crowd was screaming. Louisville was on the ropes.
The Cardinals eventually settled, beginning with a Shoni Schimmel three that opened their scoring with 18:15 to play. But UConn was blocking shots, intimidating others and rushing the ball down the floor with a flustering speed.
Stewart’s free throw gave the Huskies their first 10-point lead (20-10) with 9:31 to play in the half. Just a minute later, her basket pushed the lead to 27-10.
At this point, Louisville staged one final push, outscoring the Huskies, 10-1, to cut the margin to 28-20 with 6:10 remaining in the half.
But that was that. The Huskies hit the tape with customary flourish, a 12-2 run capped off by the final two baskets of Stewart’s 16-point first half. Stewart and Hartley combined for 29 of UConn’s 40 points.
And UConn’s defense held the Cardinals to 9-for-32 shooting, delivering the message that reaching 70 points – one of Walz’ keys to a possible victory – wasn’t going to be in the Cards.
Making things harder for Louisville was the fact that its first free throw didn’t come until Shoni Schimmel stepped to the line with 4:10 to play