NEW ORLEANS – Less than two weeks ago, the storyline for Tuesday night’s championship game was all about Baylor. The big question was how can the survivor of Notre Dame-Connecticut find a way to reverse each of their competitive losses to Baylor earlier this season, and stop Brittney Griner and her defending champion teammates.
Then Louisville upended Baylor in Oklahoma City and upset Tennessee to change the entire scenario -- and kept going with a semifinal win over California. Now the Cardinals are the first No. 5 seed to play in the game that determines the entire shooting match.
But now a leadership vacuum exists in the castle and only two teams are left to fill it – UConn (34-4) or Louisville (29-8) in what in what is also the final battle among Big East teams.
When the curtain rises again next season, UConn and Louisville will be an American Athletic Conference rivalry for one go-round, and then Louisville moves on to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014-15, though it is not out of the question that the two schools could be conference rivals yet again in the ACC.
That’s down the road, however, and the focus now is on tonight’s game – and based on the authoritative fashion in which Connecticut finally ended the Notre Dame recent domination in their series on Sunday night, especially highlighted by the performance of UConn rookie Breanna Stewart with a career-high 29 points, the new kids on the block in the high-rent district of the sport are likely to be the old kids back on the block. And once they arrive it will be extremely tough to dislodge them over the next several years.
A victory Tuesday night for Connecticut means Huskies’ Hall-of-Fame coach Geno Auriemma would tie Tennessee legend Pat Summitt with eight titles, and considering the talent still hanging around the next several years, he could quickly get to No. 10, which would tie him with the illustrious and late UCLA men’s coach John Wooden.
But Auriemma told the press Monday not to get ahead of themselves. “Talking about things that haven’t happened yet is never a good idea,” Auriemma said. “I think (Tuesday night) when the game is over, if we don’t win, it’s a sad way for [senior] Kelly [Faris] and those guys to graduate.
“If we do win, it’s an amazing way for Kelly and [grad student] Caroline [Doty] and [senior] Heather [Buck] to finish their careers at Connecticut. And if we do win, it’s something that Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis traveled 3,000 miles from California to get. It’s why [freshman] Moriah Jefferson came from Dallas, Texas, to get one of those.”
Despite UConn being a heavy favorite, the Huskies have to find a way to stop Louisville’s Antonita Slaughter, whose three-point shooting has helped to drive the Cardinals this far.
“I watched that game [Sunday], and [Walz] has to be a genius. Because every time I see that kid catch the ball, she’s wide open,” Auriemma said of Slaughter.
“And I can understand if it’s the first game of the tournament. But here they are now in their fifth game [against California] in the NCAA Tournament and the kid for 40 minutes is wide open every time she catches it,” he said. “But I’m going to have to watch their films real closely and find out how the hell he does that because I want to try to do the same thing with Kaleena.
“But [Slaughter] has made more big shots in this tournament than anybody I can remember in any five-game stretch. So all I can say is if we’re there and we have a hand in her face and she still makes them, then God bless [Louisville], they deserve to win.”
Right now the only major concern on UConn has been center Stefanie Dolson playing on sore feet. While her scoring is down, she still has been a key on the Connecticut defense with her ability to rebound.
“It’s definitely frustrating to play with this, but my team and the coach has done a good job of just supporting me and helping me through it,” Dolson said. “Because I’ve never had to do anything like this. (The trainer) has done a great job of taking care of me and treating me, making it feel better every day.”
It’s also the last roundup for Faris and Doty in getting a pre-game meal. Faris is likely to land in the WNBA draft, while Doty has been slowed by the recurring knee injuries that extended her career to five seasons –- but that’s all in the past now.
“I’m just happy to be here and that the national championship is my last game,” Doty said. “I hope to go out with a bang.”