Sports

Louisville women try to steady for perfect storm

ST. LOUIS — Perfection awaits.

UConn stands on the doorstep of the third undefeated season in school history and just the fifth ever in women's Division I basketball. All that stands in the Huskies' way is Big East rival Louisville — a team they routed twice this season.

Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma insists he's worried, even though the Huskies beat the Cardinals by 28 points in the regular season and 39 in the Big East title game.

"It's way too much familiarity for both teams," the Hall of Fame coach said. "A lot more than you'd like to have this time of year."

Auriemma has seen a big difference in the Cardinals from the team UConn dismantled in the conference championship a month ago.

"What we did in the second game, I don't think it has any effect on today," he said. "Different environment. Different day. Different attitudes among the players."

Louisville, which is looking to become the fourth team to knock off three No. 1 seeds on its way to a title, will have to have a new game plan against Connecticut. Second-year coach Jeff Walz was hard-pressed to find a weakness with the Huskies last time out.

"I think I saw their manager drop a bottle of water," he said laughing. "That's the scary thing about them. They've got three of the top 10 players in the country. Then you've got Tiffany Hayes, who's shooting the ball extremely well. We're going to have to try and control the tempo of the game."

Walz said that his team can't afford a similar start to the one they had in the semifinal game when the Cardinals missed their first 13 shots before rallying to beat Oklahoma.

"If we come out and play the first five minutes the same way (Tuesday) night, instead of losing 11-0, it's 25-0."

The Cardinals say they feel no pressure, though, and Walz likens his undersized, overachieving team to the lovable Bad News Bears.

"We might not have been the most talented team on the floor the last few games. We've been the tougher team and the team with more heart," he said. "We have a group of players here that are buying into a system and buying into a role."

Like the fictional Bears, the Cardinals relish the role of being the underdog.

Louisville players want the media "to keep saying the other team's going to win," star Angel McCoughtry said. "I hope they wish Connecticut wins. ... That's what we've been thriving off of, so we don't want that to change."

While it's the Cardinals' first appearance in the title game, the Huskies are vying for their sixth national championship and first since 2004. UConn was suffering through its longest "drought" since first winning in 1995. Expectations are so high back home, that it was like the UConn program had fallen off a cliff, Auriemma said.

In some ways, the struggles only make this title game sweeter, he said.

"It's one of those validating things where no matter how many times you've been in you always wonder if there's a next time," Auriemma said. "Sometimes it takes those couple of years off where it makes you go 'Wow, this is a big deal.' When you start to think it's not a big deal, you need to get out of it."

Auriemma has never lost a championship game but, as Louisville guard Deseree Byrd was quick to point out, neither has Walz, who was an assistant on Maryland's 2006 title team.

Connecticut has run through its opponents this season by 31 points a game. No one has come within single digits, and the Huskies are poised to become the first team ever — men's or women's — to finish the season unbeaten with every win coming by double figures.

A victory would put this group in the same class as UConn's other unbeaten teams in 1995 and 2002. Besides Connecticut, only Tennessee and Texas have run through a season undefeated.

No matter who wins the title game on Tuesday night, the Big East is guaranteed to be the first conference ever to sweep the NCAA and WNIT championships in the same season.

South Florida topped Kansas 75-71 on Saturday to win the WNIT, which began in 1998.

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