Louisville beat UConn for the first time in 26 years on Thursday. The third-ranked Cardinals ended a 17-game losing streak against the Huskies, winning 78-69 in front of 17,023 fans, the largest crowd in women's college basketball this season.
Louisville has had a lot of very good teams over the years. The Cardinals just haven't looked so good against UConn. Since coach Jeff Walz took over the program in 2007, the Cardinals have become a national power. They've made three trips to the Final Four, orchestrated an epic NCAA tournament upset over Baylor in 2013, and built the kind of crowd support that many other programs envy.
But they hadn't beaten UConn. And that stung.
The only time the Cardinals came out on top in the series was 1993, two years before the Huskies won their first of 11 NCAA titles and when Walz was still in college. Before any current college players were even born.
Yet wearing throwback "UL" uniforms Thursday in front of 17,023 fans at the KFC Yum! Center, the Cardinals got the breakthrough they'd long sought. They finally toppled the Huskies, a 78-69 victory that will be celebrated by all the current and former Louisville players.
This was big, not just from a historical standpoint -- ending a 17-game losing streak against a primary nemesis -- but for the Cardinals' confidence. They know they're good enough to make the Final Four; most of them were on last season's team that reached the national semifinals, where Louisville lost to Mississippi State in overtime.
Thursday's victory let them know they can be national champions. It's still a tough road ahead. And one thing we've seen from this wonderfully entertaining season thus far is that there isn't a clear favorite to win it all. There are a handful of teams -- including new No. 1 Baylor -- that seem to have as good a chance as anybody else.
Louisville was already in that category, but this win further solidified that. The No. 3 Cardinals showed they could frustrate the No. 2 Huskies offensively, holding them to 38.0 percent shooting. UConn took some uncharacteristically rushed, unproductive shots -- the kind of thing we rarely see from this program. The Huskies were 8-of-21 overall from 3-point range, but just 1-of-9 on contested 3-point attempts.
The Cardinals proved what star Asia Durr always says: This team is more than just her. Admittedly, she's spectacular; even after a scoreless first quarter, Durr finished with 24 points. She has about the prettiest 3-point shot in the college game, a lefty stroke that seems so smooth and effortless that you almost expect every one of them to go in, even when she's heavily guarded.
Durr hit 5 of 10 attempts from behind the arc, despite the Huskies' committed effort to keep the ball out of her hands and force her to shoot over defenders. But the rest of Louisville's attack also did its job.
Dana Evans hit five 3-pointers and finished with 20 points. Jazmine Jones, one of the players Walz knew had to come up big, had 13 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. And Sam Fuehring had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
In UConn's previous loss this season -- 68-57 at Baylor on Jan. 3 -- the Lady Bears limited turnovers, which was crucial in preventing the Huskies from the transition points they so often feast upon. Louisville did the same thing Thursday, with just five turnovers.
Do the Huskies have reason to worry? To a degree, yes. Coach Geno Auriemma kept freshman Christyn Williams on the bench for key stretches of the game, apparently to send a message about his displeasure with her effort. She finished with five points.
Napheesa Collier scored 20 points, Crystal Dangerfield had 19 and Katie Lou Samuelson 16. But there were a few turnovers in which even the seniors who know each other so well -- Collier and Samuelson -- didn't appear to be on the same page.
Of course, back in 2012-13, when Breanna Stewart was a freshman, UConn had some difficult losses, too, but then put it all together in an NCAA tournament run to the championship. That was the last season before now in which the Huskies lost at least two regular-season games, and it ended up just fine.
The Huskies (18-2) return to American Athletic Conference play, where they've never lost, with just one more nonleague game left: against South Carolina on Feb. 11 in Hartford, Connecticut. UConn has time to work on the things that Auriemma no doubt is telling them regularly in practice. Nobody knows better than him what a championship team looks like, and the Huskies aren't there right now.
Louisville returns to the ACC, home not only to the defending NCAA champion, Notre Dame, but also the nation's only undefeated team, NC State (21-0). The Cardinals (20-1) already have faced the Irish. That was their lone loss -- 82-68 on Jan. 10 -- and their matchup with the Wolfpack will be in Louisville on Feb. 28.
Durr, an expected lottery pick in April's WNBA draft, made the point right after Thursday's emotional win that there was still a long way to go. She's right, of course. But a triumph like this was a long time coming and shows how far Louisville has climbed.