UConn brought back items less tangible — confidence, self-esteem, things that seemed lost a week ago. The Huskies, now, can look ahead without dread.
Louisville's 71-61 victory Saturday in the first American Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament stings for the moment. The Cardinals, playing as well as anyone in the country, beat UConn for the third time this season, the second time in a week, and only with a late little flurry did the Huskies close the gap.
But UConn's impressive victories over Memphis and Cincinnati to reach the final and earn this rematch with Louisville are still fresh in mind, and were likely good enough to earn the Huskies a nice niche in the NCAA Tournament when the brackets are revealed Sunday night.
"We're going to deep in this tournament, that's our goal," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
The Huskies (26-8) probably will get a No. 5 seed in one of the four 16-team regionals. Louisville (29-5), the defending champs, ranked fifth in the AP poll, could be a No. 1 seed — or an extremely dangerous No.2. After beating the Huskies by 33 points in the regular season finale March 8, the Cardinals tore through this league tournament, beating Rutgers by 61 and Houston by 29.
"To win a regular season championship and a tournament championship back-to-back is not easy," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "You have to have special players and these two epitomize exactly that."
These two: Russ Smith, who had 19 points and five steals on Saturday, averaged 25.6 points per game and was the tournament's most outstanding player, but power forward Montrezl Harrell, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds, dominated UConn for the third time in a row. Louisville outrebounded UConn 38-33, including 16-9 on the offensive glass, and that was the difference in the game, along with a flurry in the final minutes of the first half that opened up a 14-point lead.
"That dug us too big a hole," Ryan Boatright said.
The Huskies never led, but were within four points, 18-14, when DeAndre Daniels made a layup with 7:57 to go in the first half, and within six when Amida Brimah dunked, off Shabazz Napier's assist, with 3:28 left.
But Louisville's pressure defense took its toll, and with a couple of Husky misses, rebounds and two turnovers, the Cardinals finished the half with a 10-2 flourish to make it 37-23.
"The first half, we didn't play as well as we should have," Napier said. "We didn't move the ball the right way, we didn't knock down open shots, we just didn't find our rhythm."
Chris Jones, who hurt UConn from the perimeter, hit a three-point shot with 15:38 to go in the game to stretch Louisville's lead to 20 points. After that, it was a question of how much dignity the Huskies could salvage.
Unlike what happened at Louisville a week ago, the Huskies stuck with it, kept trying to pass the ball and beat the zone. They ended up shooting 50 percent in the second half, getting 10 assists on 14 field goals, and found Daniels open in the middle for high-percentage jumpers, and Brimah under the basket. Daniels finished with 17 points, Napier 16 and Brimah 14.
"We feel good about how we battled the second half," Daniels said. "We played the right away and shared the ball."
In the bleak aftermath of the 81-48 loss Louisville, Ollie told his team that if they played that way, their season would have only two more games, and then "they could go on spring break."
The Huskies, ranked 21st, began this tournament with a 72-53 victory over Memphis, the host school, and then matched the physical play of top-seeded Cincinnati to win 58-56 in the semifinals.
Louisville, which has won 21 of its last 22 postseason games, proved to be just too much — again. They have won nine of the last 10 against UConn, five in a row since the Huskies won the 2011 Big East final in New York.
"We didn't come down here just to win a semifinal game," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "We came down here to win a championship. It didn't happen. But I think our guys gave it their all and played with their hearts and that's all I ask of these guys each and every day. … We want to win a national championship. I still believe in this team, we've got to clean some things up. You know how this tournament is, one-game elimination, somebody can get hot and hopefully that team will be us."