UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- News flash: On Monday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., the University of Connecticut -- reigning national champions; 34-0 overall and18-0 in conference play; and consensus No. 1 team in the nation all season -- captured the first American Athletic Conference Women's Basketball Tournament championship in the league's inaugural season.
Now that we've removed the suspense concerning that pressing question, we can move on to examine what we've learned from the exercise.
The Louisville Cardinals (30-4, 16-2) are a confident, talented team. Their swagger and self-assurance gives them the ability to exceed the expectations of pundits on a regular basis. Dramatically in 2013, by knocking out heavily favored and previously unbeaten Baylor in perhaps the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, and more quietly in 2009, they advanced to the NCAA national championship game when no one outside of central Kentucky was picking them to make it as far as the Final Four.
Believing is one thing. Making grandiose predictions is another. Twice this season, a Cardinals player predicted that they would “get” UConn in the next game. It has not happened. This time, in the first American Athletic Conference final, Louisville lost to Connecticut, 72-52.
Louisville – UConn contests are a frequent occurrence. It is not a rivalry. Louisville last beat UConn in 1993. Fifteen straight losses followed, including Monday’s. This year, the Cardinals lost to Connecticut by 17 points in Storrs and by 20 in both Louisville and Uncasville. They lost last season’s NCAA Championship by 33. These losses are not embarrassing. Everyone has lost to Connecticut this season, all by double digits.
This championship game fit the pattern that has seen UConn defeat nationally ranked teams 11 times this season by an average margin of 22.5 points. Connecticut hit threes on its first two possessions, followed by a steal and layup to take an 8-0 lead in the first 1:17 of play. Despite some unusually sloppy passing leading to 10 first-half turnovers, Connecticut’s defense held Louisville to 28-percent field-goal shooting, and kept the game under control the rest of the way. When they held onto the ball, the Huskies were the offensive juggernaut the country has come to expect, hitting 50 percent of their attempts in the opening half.
Louisville simply could not hold Breanna Stewart (16 points) and Bria Hartley (13 points) in check.
“We did some good things, but we didn’t do enough of them, Coach Walz explained. “We let them get there too quick.”
At one point, the Cardinals cut the lead to eight, but then gave up 11 straight points, mostly to Stewart.
“We can’t handle prosperity,” Walz said ruefully. ”We cut it to eight, then we had a defensive breakdown, and we fouled the jump-shooter several times. You just can’t give them the easy ones. We got beat in transition again.”
One thing Louisville did well was excel on the boards for much of the half, providing a primer on excellent box-out technique and holding the Huskies to just four second-chance points.
Louisville failed to take advantage of the Husky turnovers, however, in part because Shoni Schimmel took more than half of the Cardinals' field goals in the half, hitting just 25 percent of them.
Schimmel is a winner. She is a demonstrably tough competitor. With a game on the line, any reasonable coach would want the ball in her hands. She does not, however, make the players around her better, because she takes far too many shots, and creates far too few for her talented teammates. Of the Louisville starters, Schimmel has the lowest field-goal percentage on the year. She has nearly twice as many attempts (504) as Sara Hammond, the team's second-most active shooter. The difference: Hammond is a 51.8-percent field-goal shooter. Schimmel, to put it mildly, is not (39.1 percent).
As good as Louisville is, the Cardinals could be much better if Antonita Slaughter (43.2 percent FG, 185 attempts) and Tia Gibbs (43.5 percent FG, 191 shots) had more offensive opportunities.
The halftime score was 40-22.
Recordings of the second half will not be replayed at anyone’s offensive clinic. Both teams went cold, and Connecticut’s players seemed at times distracted. The Huskies shot 35 percent from the field in the second half, their second-lowest shooting performance of the season. Significantly, the lowest of the year (32 percent) was their previous game against Louisville. Louisville, however, shot 32 percent in the half, 28 percent for the game, which was poorly enough to allow UConn, on a mediocre night, to dominate. Again.
In a sub-par half, UConn outscored Louisville by only two points. But they still out-scored the Cardinals, and their 20-point victory matched the margin of the game between the teams a week ago. Louisville did not “get them.”
Stephanie Dolson recorded her 12th double-double, but had a poor offensive game by her standards, committing four turnovers, posting only 10 points and shooting just 4-for-13 (30.7 percent) from the field. Like the senior leader that she is, she found another way to contribute, focusing on rebounding and grabbing 16 boards for the game.
Connecticut moves on to play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Storrs on March 23 and 25. The Huskies will be the No. 1 seed in either Lincoln, Nebraska (where they belong), or Louisville. Louisville, which has losses only to Kentucky and Connecticut, is a potential No. 1, but is more likely the best No. 2. And here is where the foolishness of geographic seeding comes in.
Coach Walz put the dilemma well: “If we're trying to put a true NCAA Tournament together,” he said, “which I think we're at that point now that we can, then if we're the fourth No. 2 and UConn is the first one, then they should come to our place, and I've got no problem with that. . . . I mean, I'm not sure how many families here, or writers in this room have their car gassed up and prepared to drive to Louisville if that's where the game -- if that's where they're sent,” he added wryly. “You're going to fly to Louisville or Lincoln. [But] if you're trying to run a true tournament with the true seeding, [sending UConn to Lincoln is] what you would do if we're not the fourth No. 2 seed.”
The Selection Committee has allowed itself to be shackled by geography before. Sending Connecticut to play at Louisville, and a likely fourth game this season would be ridiculous, but far from impossible given past history. We’ll know in a week.
The AAC organizers and the Mohegan Sun Casino delivered a near-flawless, professional and enjoyable tournament. Most AAC Athletic Directors spent some time at the venue this weekend, and most came away impressed. The league has an option to return next season, and it seems likely the schools will choose to exercise it. The Mohegan Sun Arena is a comfortable space with great sight-lines and a manageable size, just under 9000 seats.
During the tournament, junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis surpassed 1,500 points for her career. Sophomore Breanna Stewart grabbed her 500th rebound, and scored 20 or more points for the 19th time in 34 games. UConn completed its sixth undefeated regular season.
Most Outstanding Player
Breanna Stewart, UConn
Stefanie Dolson, UConn
Bria Hartley, UConn
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, UConn
Shoni Schimmel, Louisville
Courtney Williams, USF