UNCASVILLE – It appears the great misfortune of Louisville is to operate in this time and place: the Big East, the American Athletic Conference in the era of UConn. Imagine how disheartening it must feel at times.
The Cardinals have played two national championship games against UConn in seven years. They have played in conference championships against UConn. They have recruited Angel McCoughtry and Shoni Schimmel to compete with UConn. Their young coach, Jeff Walz, is about to embark on his own USA Basketball career.
It's been quite the program, ranked third nationally, winner of 30 games this season, a fresh powerhouse.
There is only one thing the Cardinals haven't been able to do, no matter how hard they try, where they play or what motivational fires they flame. They can't beat UConn. And until they do, they can't get what they need.
Well, they didn't beat the Huskies Monday in the first AAC championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
"It's not going to last forever," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Nothing does. The object is to put yourself into position to win and at some point you will."
Scoring the first eight points in the opening 1:17 set the scene for UConn's scorching of the Cardinals, 72-52, before a boisterous, partisan crowd.
"It's not about the hats, the trophies or the shirts," Auriemma said. "The significance of all of this is that you have a goal before the season – to win the conference championship. The whole process is about that."
After winning 18 tournament championships in the Big East, the Huskies added another in their new world, one they conquered with frightening efficiency this season. They won their first 18 AAC games this season by an average of 37.4 points.
On Monday, the NCAA's selection committee will assign a region to this No. 1 seed. The road to what would be a ninth national championship will begin at Gampel Pavilion with first- and second-round games on March 23 and 25.
The Huskies were again led by sophomore Breanna Stewart. The AAC's player of the year, the most outstanding player of the tournament, scored 20 points with nine rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots.
Bria Hartley added 16 points. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 13 points. And Stefanie Dolson had 10 points and 16 rebounds, her 12th double-double of the season.
The Cardinals (30-4) were led by senior Shoni Schimmel. She scored 20 points with seven rebounds, but she was 7 of 25 from the field, 4-for-16 from three.
Three of Louisville's four losses this season have been to UConn (34-0), which has now won 40 straight.
"We did some good things," Walz said. "We just didn't do enough of them. … But we show up to play the game to win. If someone thinks they can't be beat, let's save a bunch of money and just give out the trophies now."
Hartley, Dolson and Mosqueda-Lewis made the all-tournament team along with Shoni Schimmel and South Florida's Courtney Williams.
"Things are definitely clicking," Dolson said. "We are playing extremely well as a team. There's room for improvement, we know it. But we think we will continue to get better."
This was the third meeting this season between the teams. The second was played March 3 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. And despite the 20-point loss, the Cardinals did land the first punches, riding the wave of adrenaline to a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes. It was the largest deficit UConn faced all season.
UConn would have none of that this time.
The onslaught began with three-pointers from Stewart and Hartley and a hoop by Mosqueda-Lewis in the first 77 seconds. It was 8-0. The crowd was screaming. Louisville was on the ropes.
The Cardinals eventually settled, beginning with a Shoni Schimmel three that opened their scoring with 18:15 to play. But UConn was blocking shots, intimidating others and rushing the ball down the floor with a flustering speed.
Stewart's free throw gave the Huskies their first 10-point lead (20-10) with 9:31 to play in the half. Just a minute later, her basket pushed the lead to 27-10.
At this point, Louisville staged one final push, outscoring the Huskies 10-1 to cut the margin to 28-20 with 6:10 remaining in the half.
But that was that. The Huskies hit the half with a flourish, a 12-2 run capped off by the final two baskets of Stewart's 16-point first half. Stewart and Hartley combined for 29 of UConn's 40 first half points.
"You always want to go into the half on a run," Stewart said. "The transition game was really working for us and we just kept pushing it up the floor."
And UConn's defense held the Cardinals to 9-for-32 shooting, delivering the message that reaching 70 points – one of Walz' keys to a possible victory – wasn't going to be in the cards.
Making things harder for Louisville was the fact that its first free throw didn't come until Shoni Schimmel stepped to the line with 4:10 to play. The Cardinals were 3-for-3 from the line; UConn 16 of 22.
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