- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- So much needed to go Louisville's way in order to prove the naysayers wrong on Tuesday night. The Cardinals needed an epic performance to make this thing a game. But the team that delivered was Connecticut, one possession after another, after another. The Huskies dominated on defense, on the glass and, ultimately, on the scoreboard, winning their eighth national title by defeating Louisville 93-60.
The game was over well before the final buzzer, and the Huskies were smiling as the game clock ticked down. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma substituted for guard Kelly Faris when there was still 2 minutes, 4 seconds left in the game. He wrapped his senior guard in a long hug, smiling and whispering into her ear.
The celebration was on.
Overview: Connecticut finished the game with 13 3-pointers, an NCAA championship game record. The Huskies shot 13-for-26 from beyond the arc (50 percent), which is actually the kind of shooting night that Louisville desperately needed in order to compete. Connecticut was just superior in every facet of the game.
Key player: Breanna Stewart. Although there were a number of players on UConn who could have been designated "key player," Breanna Stewart's play during the first half changed the course of this game. Stewart scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds during the first half, helping the Huskies to a 48-29 lead at the break. So Stewart gets the nod, but the reason the Huskies dominated so thoroughly was because of the balanced performance, getting strong games from forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (18 points), Faris (16 points), guard Bria Hartley (13 points) and center Stefanie Dolson (12 points). Stewart finished with a game-high 23 points, hitting 9-of-15 shots, with nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks.
Key stat: Rebounding. During one of the media timeouts early in the first half, Louisville coach Jeff Walz told his Cardinals that if they rebounded the ball, they would win the game. He urged all five of the players on the floor to crash the boards and own the glass. But that didn't happen. Quite the opposite, actually. The Huskies finished the game with a 43-26 advantage on the glass. Those numbers included 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, which led to 16 second-chance points for UConn, which in turn translated to a big lead.
Turning point: Faris draining back-to-back 3-pointers. The Cardinals opened the second half by knocking down a couple of shots from long range. The only problem was that each time they did, Faris responded with one of her own. Louisville really needed to quickly cut down the UConn lead after the break, but Faris made sure that didn't happen. Each of her 3-pointers came from the right wing and she had all day to shoot -- Louisville was clearly packing in its defense to limit Stewart and Dolson. By midway through the first half, Louisville still hadn't cut into UConn's lead.
First-half analysis: Connecticut 48, Louisville 29
Overview: Louisville looked like the looser team off the tip, opening the game with a 3-pointer from the left corner by forward Sara Hammond. The Cardinals used that quick start to build a 14-10 lead with 13 minutes, 52 seconds to play. Connecticut immediately went on a 19-0 run, which included a couple of smooth looking jumpers from UConn freshman Breanna Stewart and was punctuated by a 3-pointer from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Louisville immediately called a timeout, trailing 29-14.
Key player: UConn's Stewart. The 6-foot-4 forward scored 18 points in the first half, but more important than the total was her timing. She dropped many of her buckets during the crucial first-half stretch when the Huskies separated themselves from the Cardinals. She hit a long 3-pointer from the left wing, the ball splashing through the net as a foul was called on Louisville's Monique Reid. Stewart scored her points efficiently, finishing the first half 7-for-11 from the floor. Stewart also grabbed seven rebounds. Also crucial was the amount of defensive energy Louisville was forced to expend focusing on Stewart's whereabouts. The Cardinals were always cognizant of Stewart's location in UConn's half-court offense, which led to open shots for other players, such as forward Mosqueda-Lewis (12 points) and guard Bria Hartley (six points).
Key stat: Louisville's 3-point shooting. The Cardinals finished the first half only 2-for-9 from beyond the arc. And star guard Shoni Schimmel went 1-of-8 from the floor and 2-of-9 from the 3-point line. This is poor shooting for any team, but especially damaging for a Louisville squad that really needed an above-average night from downtown to compete with the much more experienced Huskies. The Cardinals actually missed eight long-range attempts in a row during the first half. After Hammond's 3-pointer in the opening seconds, Louisville could not connect until late in the first half, after it was already significantly behind. Louisville needed 16 3-pointers to defeat Baylor earlier in the tournament, and many people thought the Cardinals needed a similar performance to compete with UConn.
Key moment: A five-minute stretch in the first half when the Huskies went on a 19-0 run. Once the Cardinals found themselves staring at a 15-point deficit, the life seemed to suck out of them. Louisville guard Jude Schimmel, after picking up her third foul, was fighting back tears on the bench. Similarly, Louisville guard Bria Smith caught a couple of elbows during the first 20 minutes and she looked frustrated after picking herself up off the floor the second time. The Cardinals started forcing their offensive end of the floor, rushing shots and panicking.
Connecticut beat fifth-seeded Louisville on Tuesday in New Orleans to win its eighth national title.