Louisville women join men with shot at NCAA title
NEW ORLEANS -- Louisville's basketball teams have been pulling for each other during both NCAA tournaments, sweating through the nail biters, cheering the wins.
There hasn't been a loss yet. It sure is a joyous time to be a Cardinal.
The women got a pep talk from men's coach Rick Pitino after they lost to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament -- and they haven't lost since, beating Cal 64-57 on Sunday night to advance to the school's second NCAA championship game.
The women's players gathered at a New Orleans restaurant to watch the men beat Wichita State on Saturday and will be watching again Monday night when the men play Michigan for the title.
"The way I look at it, I think the men are trying to feed off of our success," women's coach Jeff Walz said with a smirk before adding on a serious note that he'd received word from Atlanta that the Louisville men "were in the hotel lobby, jumping up and down and cheering for us."
Pitino texted Walz after their victory "congratulating us and telling me to tell the players what an unbelievable job they did."
And so they have.
Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma is well aware of what Louisville is going through right now.
Back in 2004, the men's and women's teams at UConn were playing for the national title and both came away victorious, the only time one school won both titles in the same season.
Now Louisville can do it again.
"If it were easy, it would have been done a lot of times, but the fact it's only been done once shows you how difficult it is to do," said Auriemma after his team routed Notre Dame 83-65 to reach the final. "At the same time, this has been a magical year for Louisville. ... It's just amazing what they've been able to do, so I think we're playing against Louisville and we're playing against a certain karma, maybe."
Auriemma's Huskies were finally able to shake off the Fighting Irish, thanks to an incredible effort by star freshman Breanna Stewart. She scored a career-high 29 points to go with four blocks and was seemingly everywhere.
"Given the stage, and what was at stake, I don't know that I've seen any bigger performance," said Auriemma. "I know there's been NCAA tournament games that we've had certain individuals play great, but I don't remember a player having a better game in this environment."
UConn will be going for its eighth championship Tuesday night, which would match Tennessee for the most in the women's college game.
No team has dominated the Huskies under Auriemma the way the Irish had over the past few seasons. UConn (34-4) had lost the previous two national semifinals to Notre Dame and dropped three thrilling games this season to their conference rival.
Stewart and her teammates wouldn't let it happen again, ending the brilliant career of Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins with a thud. Diggins finished with 10 points, going a dismal 3 for 15 from the field.
"Once you get here you're only going to beat great teams. And the reason Notre Dame has beaten us seven of the last eight times is because they're really, really good," Auriemma said. "For one night, that's what's great about the NCAA tournament, for one night, for just this night, we just needed to be better than them, and we were."
The Huskies built a 10-point halftime lead and Notre Dame (35-2) could only get within six in the second half as its school-record winning streak came to an end at 30 games.
UConn and Notre Dame have developed the best rivalry in women's basketball over the past few seasons, and this game might have been the final chapter between the two with the Irish heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Two years ago, the Huskies won the first three meetings before Notre Dame shocked them in the national semifinals. The Irish had won seven of the previous eight meetings before Sunday night and this one, for once, started slowly. Notre Dame went nearly 7½ minutes without a field goal, missing 14 consecutive shots, and neither team led by more than four over the first 16 minutes.
But trailing 26-25 with 3:44 left in the half, UConn started to take over. Bria Hartley, who has struggled all season while recovering from an ankle injury she suffered over the summer, was the spark. The junior guard started the spurt with a 3-pointer and added a nifty pull-up moments later to make it 32-26.
Diggins was 0 for 6 from the field in the first half as the Huskies harassed her all over the court. She scored the Irish's first two points on free throws and didn't have another point until getting a steal early in the second half and converting it for the easy layup to make it 42-35.
The two-time All-American tried to do everything she could to rally her team, twice chasing down Hartley on the break for a block, but her shots weren't falling and her team was falling behind.
UConn led 50-43 with 12:22 left before Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart hit back-to-back 3s to give the Huskies their biggest lead. Notre Dame wasn't done, with star freshman Jewell Loyd scoring five points during a 9-2 run to get the Irish within 61-55.
But that was as close as they could get.
Stewart was the most heralded freshman coming into the season, but struggled through the middle part of the year. But ever since the Big East tournament she's been on a roll.
"Every player, especially young players, deal with things differently," Auriemma said. "And I think when the season ended, it just let the air out of the balloon and she said, `Now I just want to play basketball.' My God, she was amazing tonight."
Now Stewart and the rest of the Huskies will get ready for the Cardinals, who have beaten Baylor, Tennessee and Cal their last three games to make it to the championship.
But that can wait until after Monday night -- when the Cardinals will watch the men's team try to win their own title.
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Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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