The University of Louisville women’s basketball team had not defeated the UConn Huskies since 1993. Jeff Walz wasn’t out of college and Matt Bevin still lived in Pennsylvania. But the power of Cards was compelling, and Louisville exorcised the Huskies demon at the KFC Yum! Center this January.
And now, here we are again. The two perennial powerhouses will face off in the Elite Eight on Sunday at noon. No big deal; just a trip to the Final Four in Tampa on the line. But pause to reflect on a few things. Louisville women’s basketball is now (and has been) a perennial powerhouse, without question. In years past, the Huskies were the impossible team. The team that glared at you from across the bracket and filled you with dread. But no more. And on Sunday, the Huskies will be wearing the away uniforms befitting a lower seed. Up is down, left is right, cats and dogs living together.
The Huskies’ loss to the Cardinals wasn’t just a loss. It was a statement. A Louisville offensive clinic was matched by an equally impressive defensive demonstration. When Arica Carter, with a four inch disadvantage, is guarding Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier and causing them fits you know it’s going to be a good night for the Cards.
Fortunately for Geno Auriemma, the remaining American Athletic Conference schedule was more than happy to serve as a punching bag. The Huskies beat out their aggression on a hapless set of opponents, with an average margin of victory of +30 for the remainder of their conference schedule. But such a weak schedule, plus losses to Baylor and Louisville, did UConn no favors. For this first time since 2006, the Huskies are not a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Katie Lou Samuelson, by the way, skipped the AAC tournament with injury. As if she was needed, but she’s back and appears to be at full strength.
As for the Cardinals, a loss to a tough Miami team exposed a few gaps late in February. But that’s a Miami team, mind you, that barely missed out on a trip to the Sweet Sixteen after falling 55-57 to Arizona State. An Arizona State team that easily handled the Oregon State Beavers during the regular season. See what I did there?
Whatever defensive deficiencies that may have existed for the Cardinals were gradually sealed as the season wore on, and Louisville would cruise into the ACC tournament with relative ease. But what had been easy quickly turned to struggle as the Cards fought off injury and physical assault to advance through Clemson and NC State to an ACC championship date with Notre Dame. A depleted Louisville team would fall to the Irish in what casual observers falsely considered a beat down, and thus was born the new bogeyman of the Cardinals’ post-season.
If the Irish are now the team glaring menacingly from across the bracket, the Huskies are now just another game. The Cardinals will take on the Huskies at noon on Sunday in a game that, despite evidence to the contrary, many national commentators still consider an impossible task for Louisville. Well screw them. Jeff Walz and crew out-defensed a defensively stellar Oregon State team to set up a rematch that should easily have the eyes of the nation upon it.
Keys to Victory
One more win, and the Cardinals are dancing to Tampa for the Final Four
- You know, it’s so lame to say it, but it’s true. Defense wins games. In January, Arica Carter pestered the hell out of the UConn interior players and gave them fits. Sam Fuehring was all over the place with a dominating defensive presence. And the Cardinals held the Huskies to under 40% shooting while winning the rebounding battle to limit second chance points. UCLA nearly got the best of UConn on Friday night with their defensive effort. But the Bruins couldn’t find a basket even if it slapped them in the face. For Louisville, another team defensive effort will be essential to locking down Collier and Samuelson in the paint. Then it’s just a matter of keeping the offense sparked.
- Arica Carter didn’t take long to return to form after a knee contusion sidelined her. Against Michigan her shooting wasn’t yet up to snuff, but her defensive energy and off the ball contributions demonstrated her health and resolve. Against the Beavers, a couple of quick threes in the second quarter showed that her stroke is coming back as well. The Huskies will key on Carter and Durr, but good ball movement and solid screens can spring the guards free for mid- to long-range shots. Not mention there are a few other Cardinals that have demonstrated a knack for shooting from distance <cough> Sam Fuehring and Kylee Shook <cough>. Louisville will need to use all of their offensive weapons (and they have many) to contest against the Huskies forest of trees in the middle.
- Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding! GOD TOM! Would you quit with the rebounding crap? NEVER! Win the battle on the glass, and win the game. Limit the second chance opportunities for the Huskies as much as possible. Bionca and Sam will not be pushed around. And continually improved Kylee Shook may have been a twig on Friday night compared to Oregon State’s Grymek, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. Kylee shook is mad and she’s bad, and ready to rumble. And it’s not just a matter of limiting second chance points. When the Cardinals offense has stagnated, quick outlet passes and steals to create points in transition has served to create runs. If the set piece isn’t working, just shoot uncontested layups. Seems to work pretty well.
The best part about the showdown in Albany on Sunday is that it’s just a game. Sure, it’s an Elite Eight game with a trip to the Final Four on the line. But whereas UConn was once the team that could mess with your head even before the ball was tipped, now they’re just the Huskies. It’s no longer a burden to bear but rather a bear to be wrestled.
The Cardinals are healthy. The Cardinals are focused. The Cardinals are 40 minutes away from Tampa.
UConn – #3 Megan Walker (So.-F), #5 Crystal Dangerfield (Jr.-G), #13 Christyn Williams (Fr.-G), #24 Napheesa Collier (Sr.-F), #33 Katie Lou Samuelson (Sr.-G)
Louisville – #25 Asia Durr, #11 Arica Carter, #23 Jazmine Jones, #21 Kylee Shook, #3 Sam Fuehring
Date: Sunday, 31 Mar 2019
Time: 12:00 p.m. EDT
Site: Times Union Center – Albany, NY