Geno Auriemma has never lost an NCAA championship game.
Of course, his UConn Huskies haven’t had to face a team like upstart Louisville, which is making an unprecedented run through the women’s tournament. A victory tonight over the Cardinals would be UConn’s eighth title, matching them with Tennessee for the most ever in women’s basketball.
Auriemma didn’t want to think about it.
“Talking about things that haven’t happened yet is never a good idea,” Auriemma said.
History is on the Hall of Fame coach’s side: UConn is 7-0 in title games, including a victory in the 2009 game against Louisville and the 2004 game that was also played in New Orleans. That game was the college finale of Diana Taurasi, who finished with three straight championships.
This trip to the Big Easy could be the beginning of a new dynasty for the Huskies led by Breanna Stewart. The heralded freshman has been on one of the most remarkable runs of any first year player in the history of the NCAA tournament. She had a season-high 29 points in the semifinal victory over Notre Dame and was honored as the most outstanding player of the Bridgeport regional.
Auriemma said he couldn’t remember a player having a better game in such a setting.
Stewart already has scored 82 points in the NCAA tournament in just four games. The Syracuse native sat out the opening round rout of Idaho.
“I was sitting next to Jim Boeheim at the Olympics and we were talking during the gold medal game,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “He said, ‘There’s this kid that plays in the open gym with the women up at Syracuse and she’s going to UConn and is one of the best players I’ve ever seen.’ It’s not a surprise in what she’s doing. She makes it look easy.”
Stewart’s exploits are reminiscent of two of the all-time greats. As freshmen, Cheryl Miller guided USC to a title in 1983 and Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee to a championship in 1996.
Auriemma’s latest prize recruit missed this season’s first game against Louisville as she recovered from an ankle injury. UConn still won that game by 14 points. The Huskies have had their way with the Cardinals, winning the past 12 meetings, including that 2009 championship.
“I don’t remember a thing, you try not to remember anything about those games,” Walz deadpanned. “We’re playing better basketball. The kids are confident, not much more to say. We believe in what we’re doing. No one thought we’d beat Baylor, no one thought we’d beat Tennessee.”
Walz isn’t fazed by his team’s lack of success against Connecticut. It’s hard to blame him the way the Cardinals have rolled through the tournament behind freewheeling guard Shoni Schimmel.
First came the upset of Brittney Griner and Baylor that shocked everyone. Then came the victory over the Lady Vols — the winningest program in women’s basketball history. And finally the Final Four win over tournament newcomer Cal to get back to the title game for the second time in five seasons.
“It’s going to take the best game we’ve played to date,” Walz said. “We are going to have to play better than we played against Baylor, Tennessee and Cal. We’re going to have to play 40 minutes of pretty much perfect basketball.”
That will start with Schimmel, who has been incredible all tournament. Whether hitting 3-pointers from way behind the line, a behind-the-back bounce pass to her sister Jude, or an over-the-head fling against Griner, Schimmel has been a star for the fifth-seeded Cardinals.
“We’re not done with what we’ve come out here to do and that’s win a national championship,” Schimmel said. “Why not go out with a bang?”
Louisville can become the lowest seed ever to win a NCAA championship on the women’s side. Villanova, as an eight seed, was the lowest ever to win it on the men’s side back in 1985.