Post game reaction - Louisville defeats Cal to advance to the National Championship game.
By this point in the season, we’re all pretty familiar with the two teams left standing. The national championship game obviously features two outstanding teams that are both playing well, so at this point of the season, the details and the match-ups also tend to become more important.
One detail, though, that doesn’t really impact this game is the 72-58 UConn win over Louisville back on Jan. 15. Both teams have matured considerably during the postseason and are different in many respects now from the teams they were when they met in the regular season. The outcome could still be much the same, but at the very least, the path to what looks like a probable Connecticut victory will go down other roads.
Then again, a lot of teams thought they had a clear path to victory against Louisville, and all of them will be watching the Cardinals on TV Tuesday night.
Point guard: Usually the two teams playing for the national championship have, at the least, solid point guard play, and at best, exceptional point guard play. This year, though, the script is flipped, as the better of the two Brias –- Bria Hartley of UConn –- is an indifferent decision-maker and not an effective shooter (38.4 percent overall, 29.5 percent from beyond the arc), though Hartley did play very good defense against Notre Dame. Louisville’s Bria Smith is also an effective defender, but neither is a threat to make an All-American team. And Smith has 21 more turnovers than assists (she had eight against Cal), and hasn’t made a three-pointer all year. The easy call here is just to say “Bria is better,” but journalistic standards require us to pick which one – so advantage to UConn.
Shooting guard: There’s no doubt Shoni Schimmel will do something spectacular on the big stage -– the question, though, is how often. If Schimmel just makes a couple of long threes and two or three nice passes, she’s not going to give the Cardinals what they need, which is a huge game from their up-and-down star. Schimmel is a 39.6-percent shooter for the season, and has turned the ball over 124 times (3.4 a game), and she has to improve in both of those areas on Tuesday night. The one advantage she might have is that UConn really only has two defenders capable of guarding the three Louisville perimeter players, and Kelly Faris is the best of the group. If Geno Auriemma puts her on Schimmel, then who guards Antonita Slaughter? Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis? Since Schimmel is one of those magical players who can just go off, we’re guessing Faris gets the assignment –- but it still might not be enough. It’s just a feeling: Advantage Louisville.
Small forward: Antonita Slaughter made 45 of 137 three-pointers in her first 32 games, for an acceptable 32.8-percent three-point shooting percentage. In the NCAA Tournament, though, she’s 17 of 38, an exceptional 44.7 percent from beyond the arc -- and that also means she’s made nearly 27 percent of her three-pointers in just 13 percent of her games. In short, she’s on fire from downtown, as the sportscasters would say, and the junior couldn’t have picked a better time in her career to get hot. She likely will be guarded by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who is far from a demon defender, and if Slaughter stays active, she should get some open looks. If she keeps knocking them down, she’ll outscore Mosqueda-Lewis. Edge to Louisville.
Power forward: Breanna Stewart showed what she’s capable of against Notre Dame, but can one reasonably expect her to match a career-high two nights later? Not really, but she still should be able to make plenty of plays at both ends. Sara Hammond came up big down the stretch against Cal, but she’ll have trouble defending Stewart, and unless she hits three-pointers (she made only six all year), Stewart will be able to hang in the paint and help against the Louisville guards when they penetrate. Hammond’s a pretty good player, but Stewart has the potential to be a great one, and she’s riding high right now. Advantage UConn.
Center: If Stefanie Dolson were healthy, this would be no contest, but Dolson is clearly much less than 100 percent. It’s ironic, and sad, that the hard work she put in to get in better shape and stay in better shape has no doubt contributed to the overuse injuries in both legs. If she didn’t push as hard, her legs would be healthy, but she wouldn’t have been able to play as many minutes during the season –- or, to put it another way, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. A hampered Dolson is still a brilliant passer, but the rest of her game is strongly affected by the pain in her legs, and if Louisville had a player who could take advantage, it would have been a big boost for the underdog. But Sheronne Vails is a below-average Big-Six post, if that (3.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg), and even a limping Dolson is considerably better. Advantage UConn.
Bench: The unsung hero for Louisville is Jude Schimmel, who basically came along for the ride with her big sister. But Jude has proven to be more than just an afterthought, as her quickness, competitiveness and ability to rise to the occasion have been crucial additions for the Cardinals. Monique Reid gives it her best shot, but as Jeff Walz puts it, "She's playing on one leg." Coming off injury, she’s a shadow of the player she once was, and after that, well, Walz doesn’t have many options. Auriemma, though, can just keep rolling those McDonald’s All-Americans onto the floor, and look for a lot of Moriah Jefferson Tuesday to match up with Bria Smith, allowing Bria Hartley to shift onto Shoni Schimmel. Morgan Tuck is playing very well, and Caroline Doty, a nominal starter, is capable of making a big shot as well. Advantage UConn.
Coaching: Jeff Walz has dazzled his opposition with strategic footwork, shifting defenses, controlling the pace and generally earning a “genius” tag. No question that he’s gotten the most out of his talent, but Geno Auriemma gets more talent in the first place, and knows what to do with it. Walz outcoached Kim Mulkey, Holly Warlick and Lindsey Gottlieb, but I don’t see him outcoaching Geno Auriemma. Call it even.
|Bria Hartley's 15 points off the bench were critical in UConn's semifinal victory over Notre Dame, but Hartley went just one-for-five from three-point range. Will UConn's sharpshooters be able to answer if Louisville shoots the lights out Tuesday night? (Photo by Kelly Kline)|
Offense: Shoni Schimmel has taken 480 shots, which is 162 more than anyone else on the Cardinals, and naturally, their offense is designed to get her the ball. Moving Bria Smith to the point freed Shoni up to shoot more, but Smith is a shaky ball handler, as is Schimmel. But during the tournament run, Louisville has found Slaughter when she’s open and used Hammond effectively, though the Cardinals haven’t faced a team with UConn’s defensive chops. The Huskies, meanwhile, have many, many weapons, and a veteran team that knows how to use them. If Hartley and Jefferson make good decisions, Connecticut’s versatility is a big problem for Louisville. Advantage UConn.
Defense: Much has been made of Louisville’s various junk defenses, and Walz’s orchestration thereof, but the way to beat the zones and strange formations is simple: Make jump shots. So far, the Cardinals haven’t faced a team that shoots threes as well as UConn (37.5 percent overall), and if the Huskies make long jumpers, Louisville cannot stay in those zones. Meanwhile, UConn will man up, and has the depth to absorb some foul trouble. With Dolson limping, the biggest Husky weakness is at center, but Louisville really doesn’t have anyone who can take advantage. Edge to UConn.
Intangibles: Louisville is riding the wave, no doubt, and perhaps UConn feels its job is done after getting its revenge against Notre Dame. Somehow, though, I doubt that the Huskies will underestimate the Cardinals, as Baylor certainly did, so this category is even.
Summing Up: If all the categories counted equally, the 6-2-2 edge for Connecticut would be decisive, but they don’t. For example, if Shoni Schimmel goes for 35, that’s going to offset a lot of weaknesses, and there’s probably no player in the country who is more capable of getting 35 in the national championship game than Shoni Schimmel. Of course, she’s also capable of going three for 20, and shooting Louisville right out of the title. It says here she doesn’t get 35, and UConn wears down the upstart Cardinals. Connecticut gets title number eight.
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