Cards' run still great, even in defeat
NEW ORLEANS -- After the United States men's hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice," it still had to beat Finland for the gold medal. It did not, however, have to turn around and beat the Soviets a second time.
One giant too many left Louisville one win short of the greatest run in the history of the women's NCAA tournament.
Or maybe Louisville's 93-60 loss to Connecticut on Tuesday night simply ended that run without damaging it so very much. Maybe even the most lopsided result in championship game history can't dull the shine on what preceded it.
"It's without a question, without a doubt, going to go down as one of the greatest runs in women's basketball," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.
A No. 5 seed, Louisville made its own miracle with a Sweet 16 win against Baylor. It became the first team in two seasons to beat the No. 1 overall seed when that team had Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims for an entire game. Then, Louisville beat its Finland, winning two more games by eliminating No. 2 seeds Tennessee and California.
Louisville was a good team for most of the season, but not a special team. For three weeks, as seemingly every 3-pointer went in and their defenses baffled and flustered elite opponents, the Cardinals were great.
"For whatever reason, the stars aligned and all our kids played together well on this tournament run," Louisville associate coach Stephanie Norman said. "They really started seeing what can happen when we share the basketball, when we executed, and it was just magical. When you're not supposed to do something and you do it, it still feels pretty good even though you don't reach what you ultimately wanted to do.
"Is there a taste for more? Absolutely, but I think we got the most out of our kids, more so than any other team in the country that maximized their talent."
And for a few moments Tuesday, with Louisville men's coach Rick Pitino looking on from a few rows behind his school's bench, it seemed like the Cardinals might get the ultimate last laugh. At the very least, it seemed like fans wouldn't have to choose between an uncompetitive game and the temptations of Bourbon Street in the second half.
The only lead the Cardinals had when the teams met the first time this season came similarly on the game's first basket, but they kept the lead this night, stretched it even. The Cardinals came out the more aggressive team. Sara Hammond, whose confident 3-pointer against Baylor left Walz grinning and seemed to sum up a night when everything went right, hit a 3-pointer after just 16 seconds. It was her seventh of the season. Louisville's traps and defensive movement also put the Huskies on their heels, perhaps highlighted by the flagrant foul called on Caroline Doty as she swung an elbow that connected with Bria Smith as the Connecticut guard tried to break a double-team.
With 13:51 remaining in the first half, Louisville still had a 14-10 lead. To borrow a phrase from Walz: Why not us?
Well, because the Huskies have Breanna Stewart. And Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. And Bria Hartley. And Stefanie Dolson. And even Kelly Faris, the defensive maestro who knocked down four 3-pointers in her final game.
A 19-0 run by Connecticut that took just four minutes all but ended the game. Louisville made a brief run early in the second half, only to see Faris hit back-to-back 3-pointers to erase any momentum.
Louisville knew it couldn't throw all the junk defenses in its arsenal at Connecticut. It couldn't do that because its Big East rival had seen most of them, but also because those work only when there are weak links on the floor. The Cardinals tried to take away the inside touches for Dolson and Stewart, and they paid the price they knew might come due.
"We knew coming in here we were going to have to try and make them take some 3s," Walz said. "And they took some 3s, and they made some 3s."
UConn made 13 of them, a championship game record, doing to Louisville what the Cardinals had done to Baylor.
"What makes them so unique is their ability to score from all five positions on the floor," Walz said. "You got to kind of pick your poison. I told our players, too, I mean, we're going to have to try to make someone shoot the ball that normally might not. But the problem is, when you go 13-of-26 from the 3-point line, it makes it tough to defend you."
What stood out in the aftermath of the game was just how positive things remained in Louisville locker room. It was just a year ago when the dominant sounds in Notre Dame's locker room were whispers. Here, there were voices, not the happy, raucous voices of Sunday night's semifinal comeback against Cal, but voices that seemed to have already put one loss in the perspective of five wins that preceded it.
Hammond had said a day earlier that she came to Louisville, in part, because Walz told her she would play in a championship game. And here she was.
"It was what I thought it'd be and more," Hammond said. "Just to walk out and see thousands of fans, and then all the texts and calls I got from people who were going to watch on national TV, it's just a great experience. I've got to thank Coach. He kept his promise; he got us to a national championship, and to have that feeling, no one can take it away from me, whether we won or lost. I'll never forget this. I'll never forget this group of girls."
It's the second championship game appearance in five seasons for Louisville, which now sits squarely on the women's basketball map. But unlike the 2008-09 season, when the Cardinals made their run to St. Louis and lost to Connecticut in that title game, this game ended with an eye toward the future. That team lost Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham, and finished the following season with a losing record. This team returns Shoni and Jude Schimmel, Hammond, Bria Smith, Antonita Slaughter and more. The Cardinals also will get back injured posts Shawnta' Dyer and Asia Taylor.
Time and again after the game, Walz talked about next season not just in the way a coach perfunctorily does in those moments, but as if he was already diagramming defenses with healthy big bodies in the post. And while he wouldn't be the first coach to suddenly start seeing the future with a different uniform in the vision, he seemed to throw water on the hopes of Ohio State fans reading rumors that their school might throw big money at Louisville's coach.
"Unless the school folds," Walz said when asked whether he would definitely be Louisville's coach next season. "I don't think the school's going under. Yeah, I'm looking forward to coaching this basketball team."
Some portion of the world will look at the final score Tuesday, and roll their eyes at another championship for Connecticut and another rout. But whether it was lightning in a bottle or a sign of what's to come, one win will define this tournament as much as Connecticut's latest title and a new star in Breanna Stewart. Connecticut was just better than Louisville on Tuesday night.
But that phrase doesn't mean as much as it did two weeks ago.
"For us, at the end, we just said, 'We beat Baylor,'" Norman said. "I talked to so many coaching friends, and they're going to be able to use that for the next 30 years until someone else slays another giant. It's tangible. It gives everybody hope that it's not just the same teams at the top. And I think us being there in the championship game is great for women's basketball, even though they played out of their minds and had just an amazing, amazing game.
"Our sport needs more of us to be healthy."
At some point in the past 10 days, Louisville's coaches asked themselves the obvious question: Could winning a national championship possibly feel better than the surge of emotions after beating Baylor?
Norman said there was a long pause at that point in the conversation, until finally they all snapped out of it and concluded, obviously, a national title would feel that much better.
"But the human spirit of doing the impossible, there's something to be said for that," Norman said.
The Cardinals couldn't do it twice in the span of two weeks, but it's not the final loss that we are likely to remember.