STORRS, Conn. -- Louisville is the real deal. Like Connecticut, everyone on the floor can score.
Concerns about UConn’s short bench matter little in a big game like the No.-1-v.-No.-4 match-up between the two former Big East powers at Gampel Pavilion on Sunday: UConn and Louisville each played just seven players for significant minutes. For Coach Geno Auriemma, however, those seven represented all the scholarship players who dressed for the game. When Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who had already racked up 13 points before she departed, was injured by a hard fall late in the first half -- the injury appeared similar to the nerve contusion she suffered during the Huskies' 76-57 romp over No. 3 Stanford on opening weekend, albeit less serious than her last one, if only because it is to the elbow of her non-shooting arm -- it raised the question of just how close UConn might be to disaster with its shortened bench?
Auriemma was realistic, of course, admitting, “We've got to put bubbles around our guys...we can't afford to get anybody else hurt...it is unbelievable."
But the depth problem is not a new one for UConn: "We’ve been there ever since Morgan Tuck had her surgery," Auriemma conceded. "‘Cause now, all you need is one more. . . . There’s nothing – short of playing with four players – there’s nothing else that would need to happen to put us in that danger zone where we just can’t afford it,” he continued. “We can’t afford a sprained ankle, we can’t afford three fouls in the first half, we can’t afford somebody getting the flu at the wrong time. . . . It’s not easy to deal with it right now. I don’t know that anybody’s going to have a telethon for us, you know, to send us a couple extra players,” he quipped, but not with any real humor. “We just have to manage it the best we can, but this isn’t going to be easy these next three months.”
Pundits have been criticizing Connecticut's purported lack of depth since before the season began, but as early as Mosqueda-Lewis's opening weekend injury, the Huskies served notice that while their bench might be short, it held plenty of firepower. The Huskies sailed through their preconference schedule -- even without two of their All-Americans -- with no one but Baylor getting within 11 points of them, while leaving plenty of Top-25 opponents in their wake.
With or without Mosqueda-Lewis on the floor, to beat Connecticut, Louisville needed to “play a perfect game," Cardinals head coach Jeff Walz observed. "It's an absolute battle. You've got to have 40 minutes of mentally tough basketball. Not just physically, but you've got to be into every play.”
The Cardinals did not play that perfect game on Sunday. Rather, in what in many ways looked like a reprise of last April's debacle in the national championship game, they allowed Brianna Stewart, who finished the night with a 24-point, 1--board double-double (game highs in both categories) to kill them on a half-dozen key shots. (Stewart iced the cake with six assists, two blocks and a steal.) The Cardinals lost their minds in the second half and started firing up threes without running their offense, because they were down 15.
In the final four minutes of the game, however, Louisville may have found a key to future success. Four different players drove into the teeth of the UConn defense and drew fouls. The Cardinals had not challenged the interior defense that way all game. They shot eight of their game-total 13 free throws in those four minutes, scoring six points. In the first half, they took just three free throws, leading Walz to comment, "It really comes down to the fact that they do such a good job of not fouling. I'm watching and thinking 'Wow. If they're allowed to do a few things on the floor as well as they are right now, then it's tough.'."
For the most part, in this, the only conference game to date that posed much challenge for either side, Louisville did allow the Huskies to play to their strengths. But this is the first of at least three games the teams are likely to play this season, and as Louisville fire plug Shoni Schimmel observed, "I think we are going to learn a lot from each time we play them. Like tonight - we did a lot of good things, but there are some things we need to learn from. For us, we can learn from each game which is only going to help us."
UConn visits Louisville the last game of the conference schedule, and the two are likely to meet in the AAC Tournament final. They could meet a fourth time in the Final Four, or if the tournament selection committee stupidly assigns Louisville as the two seed, to UConn’s number one, in the Louisville Regional.
So, if there is a chink in the Huskies' armor, it still has to be the length (or lack of length) of their bench. And if there is a key to the next Louisville-UConn game (March 3) it is likely to be found in the lane, where the Cardinals will have to find a way, as they did in those late minutes, to draw the fouls that could exploit UConn’s lack of numbers.