This one played out exactly as it was supposed to. Breanna Stewart led the way with a 20-point, nine-rebound effort, and added six assists and four blocked shots for good measure, to lead No. 1-ranked University of Connecticut over No. 24 Louisville, 72-52, in the inaugural American Athletic Conference Women's Basketball Final played before a near sellout crowd of 8,034 partisan, raucous fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The game was also televised nationally on ESPN.
The Huskies sprinted out to an 8-0 lead in the blink of an eyelash. A three-pointer by Stewart started the run 21 seconds into the contest. Another bomb from downtown by Hartley a half minute later was followed by a layup from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis soon thereafter, and it looked like the Huskies were about to ride off into the sunset.
But a trey from Louisville's Shoni Schimmel and a deuce from Sara Hammond sandwiched around a layup by Bria Hartley cut the Huskies' advantage to five at 10-5 at the 15:36 mark.
After Hartley knocked down another three-pointer, Louisville answered when Hammond, who earlier in the day was named First-Team All-Big East, knocked one in from beyond the arc. That gave Connecticut a five-point lead,t 13-8, Connecticut, 5:39 into the game.
And that was as close as the Cardinals would get.
The Huskies, who put on a defensive clinic throughout the tournament, went into the locker room at intermission with an 18-point lead, 40-22. Their lead grew to 25 points after a trey by KML with 4:35 remaining in the game. The Cardinals played with as much pride as they could muster at that point, and managed to shave five points off Connecticut's margin of victory during junk time.
Then again, one might define “junk time” in this one as anything happening after the first six minutes of the game.
“I think you always want to go into halftime on a good note and then we kind of set up the game,” said Stewie, who came into her own last year during the NCAA Tournament as a freshman. “Our transition game kept working and we kept pushing it at them.”We had a conversation in our locker room with the team and we talked about it's not so much the trophies and the watches or whatever you get,...they're meaningless,' said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “It's nice but they don't really mean anything. The significance of this is you have a goal when you start October15th. Our goal was to win the conference championship, so when you actually do it reinforces that our process is right.”
Besides Stewie, who received the Most Outstanding Player Award for the tournament, Hartley (15 points, six assists) and KML (13 points) scored in double-digits, and Stephanie Dolson had the games sole double-double (10 points, 16 boards). Hartley, Dolson and Mosqueda-Lewis were all named to the All-Championship Team.
Schimmel led Louisville with 20 points, seven rebounds and one steal. She, too, was named to the All-Championship Team.
As opposed to Rutgers, which attempted nary a three-pointers against the Huskies in the semifinals, Louisville threw up 29 shots from behind the arc, making nine (31 pct.). UConn, meanwhile, shot 5-for-15 from downtown (40 pct.). The Connecticut D held Louisville to 30.3 percent shooting overall from the field. Connecticut shot 40 percent.
But even Auriemma had to admit there was something about being the first champions in a brand new conference.
“We're doin' it the right way,” continued the coach. “New league, new coaches, new venue, you know, all that was kind of exciting for us. That's the way we looked at it. We looked at it as an exciting time. I don't know how many conference championships the American Conference is going to host in [its] lifetime, but we won the first one.”
UConn enters the NCAA tourney as a sure-thing overall No. 1 seed. And while a Connecticut appearance the Final Four is pretty much a foregone conclusion, a national title—which would be the Huskies' ninth—is anything but. The No. 2 overall seed will most assuredly go to Notre Dame. The Irish won the ACC tournament on Sunday and finished the season 32-0.
In previous years, when Connecticut and Notre Dame were the dominant forces in the Big East, the teams would have seen each other two—and in all likelihood three—times before the NCAA Tournament even began. That meant in the likelihood that they meet up again in The Dance, the teams would be very familiar with each other. Next year, UConn and Notre Dame will play in South Bend before conference play begins, and in 2015, the two archrivals will meet in Connecticut.
This year, however, if the brackets play out as everyone expects the will (although Tennessee might have something to say about that), UConn and Notre Dame will meet for the first time with the national championship on the line.
Finally, it looks like the Huskies will be challenged in this season of runaway wins.
It will fascinating to see how they respond.