Tonight, there's a chance for a rare double in NCAA Division I college basketball.
As we reported earlier, if the University of Louisville scores a victory in the women's championship game, it will be only the second school to capture both the men's and women's titles in the same year.
Connecticut did it in 2004. Coincidentally, it's the Connecticut women who'll try to deny Louisville's bid for a twofer. (The game airs at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.)
There's also a good chance that as the Cardinals prepare to enter the New Orleans Arena this evening, their pregame preparation will include a directive from head coach Jeff Walz, to savor it all.
That's what Walz has been saying throughout Louisville's charmed run in the tournament, as the Cardinals took down the giant of women's basketball – Baylor — and then followed it up by beating another storied program, Tennessee.
And he said it before the semifinal victory over California.
"He [Walz] told us before we went out on the court to 'stop for a second at the end of the hallway and look around in the stands and see all the banners and all your fans,' " says Louisville forward Sara Hammond. "He said, 'Just soak it in for a moment, and then when you step out on the court, go have fun and put a smile on your face.' "
But history says those smiles will fade and be gone by evening's end.
The Louisville women haven't beaten UConn since 1993. Yes, that's 20 years ago. That streak includes a 22-point Connecticut win in the 2009 women's national championship game. Their most recent meeting was in January when the Huskies breezed, 72-58.
As any tournament watcher knows, however, January is ancient history when it comes to March — and April — madness. Teams evolve over the course of a long season, and that's certainly the case with Louisville, which is playing its best basketball right now.
The Cardinals are confident and cohesive. "Our team chemistry is outrageous right now," says star guard Shoni Schimmel.
The bad news for them, though? Connecticut is also playing its best. The Huskies have won their five tournament games by an average of 35 points. Their calling card, defense, has limited those opponents to an average of 49.8 points per game. And the well-rounded and deep UConn team appears to have a breakout player at just the right time, too.
Freshman Breanna Stewart didn't play in that January victory over Louisville. The 6-foot 4-inch forward was injured. On Sunday, Stewart established herself as the heir apparent to next-great-UConn-player honors, pouring in 29 points and racking up five rebounds and four blocked shots in a semifinal win over Big East arch rival Notre Dame.
Stewart will be tough to cover tonight with her size and athleticism and range — she scores inside and just as easily from three-point range. But Stewart is only one of the obstacles Louisville faces. According to SI.com, the Huskies play an eight-woman rotation that includes five players averaging more than 9.1 points per game.
Indeed, before Stewart's trumpet blast of a performance, the skinny on Connecticut was they're not a team of stars, but a collection of really good players, any of which can rise to stardom on any given night.
That said, what Connecticut does best is play defense. To repeat, the Huskies have held tournament opponents to an average of less than 50 points per game. Even Louisville head coach Walz acknowledges that low scoring is not going to cut it tonight.
"If we have a chance to win," he says, "it's not going to be a 60-55 game. It's got to be 84-83. We might have to try and get up into the 90s if we can."
The Cards did hang 82 points on Baylor, the best team in women's basketball the past two seasons. For Louisville to break through against UConn, Schimmel most likely is going to have to work her all-court magic ... and then some. The team also will have to find a way to get guard Antonita Slaughter as open as she was in the semifinal win over Cal. She hit 6 of 10 three-point shots. Louisville will have to play its wide open style and defend waves of UConn players, as well.
Here's how Walz sums up tonight's challenge:
"We're going to have to play better than we played against Baylor, better than we played against Tennessee and Cal," he says. "We're going to have to play 40 minutes of pretty much perfect basketball."
The key words are "40 minutes." As Walz has said several times, this isn't the NBA playoffs. No best four-out-of-seven game series. It's 40 minutes. One night. And so far, the Louisville Cardinals have been the masters of one night.
Which leads us to a last laugh...
In the comic highlight of the women's tournament, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, as much a wise guy as he is a great basketball coach, suggested the red-and-white checked, open-collared shirt Walz wore during the California win looked like a tablecloth. And with that kind of shirt, Auriemma said, Walz could work in his new restaurant.
Without flinching, Walz said later that he would leave his post at Louisville to go be the head waiter in Auriemma's eatery, and that it would be a great honor.
Not to be outdone, Auriemma cracked: "He doesn't dress well enough to work in the front room of my restaurant. So he'll be bussing dishes and taking out the trash in the back until he fixes his attitude."
Both coaches, who also talk about their great respect for each other, had a good laugh.
But tonight, the odds are heavy that Walz's Louisville Cardinals will be cleaning up --after the Huskies feast on a record-tying eighth women's national championship.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
As we've heard, the University of Louisville is hoping to add to its success tonight, when its women's basketball team faces the University of Connecticut, a perennial power. If the Cardinals win, Louisville will be only the second school ever to have a men's and women's basketball championship in the same year. The other team to do it: UConn in 2004.
NPR's Tom Goldman is in New Orleans covering the women's final. And he joins me now. And, Tom, let's talk about how this upstart Louisville team got to this point. They have had an amazing run.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Charmed, amazing, whatever adjective you want to give it, Melissa, it really has been. And it all started and it really is all focused about their stunning win over the Baylor Lady Bears. You know, going into this tournament, the only real question, in what seemed to be a very predictable women's field was, you know, how are people going to beat Baylor. And when they answered that there's no way to beat Baylor and their star, 6'8" center Britney Griner, they said: well how close can anyone get.
And then here comes Louisville, thanks in large part to the great Shoni Schimmel, the junior guard for the Cardinals, her sister, Jude Schimmel, and a number of other contributors, they did it - they beat them by a point. And then they went on to beat Tennessee and they beat Towel, and here they are in the finals. It really is quite a story.
BLOCK: Here they are but here's what they're going up against, Connecticut which has never lost a title game. They've won seven times, they're looking for their eighth and they have beaten Louisville the last 12 times they've played.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right - 1993, Melissa, that was the last time Louisville beat UConn and that's 20 years ago. UConn, you know - as I mentioned, Louisville has been the darling of this tournament, as we've been talking about. Connecticut has been, even though it's tough for such a great program to be under the radar. They really have kind of been under the radar, but they have just dominated their opponents in this tournament so far.
The five games they played, they've won by an average of 35 points. Their defense, which is really their calling card, has limited those opponents to an average of 49.8 points per game. That's good defense.
BLOCK: Well, each team has key players to watch. For Connecticut, its freshman Breanna Stewart. And you mentioned Shoni Schimmel for the Louisville Cardinals. We heard about her yesterday on the program, Tom. The Umatilla Thrilla, they call her. She's a Native American from the Umatilla Tribe. Talk a bit, Tom, about what each of these players brings to their teams.
GOLDMAN: Well, number one, Breanna Stewart is a really tough match-up for Louisville. She 6'4," very athletic and she can score inside and outside, you know, with her three-point shooting. She showed that in the semifinal win over Notre Dame, which was really her kind of coming out party.
On the Louisville side, you've got, as we've talked about, Shoni Schimmel. You've also got Antonita Slaughter. And you can bet that Connecticut won't go to sleep on Antonita Slaughter, another guard for Louisville. She had made six of 10 three-point shots in the semifinal win over California. She was getting wide open. You can bet UConn will do everything it can to make sure it's got a hand up, and she won't be as open.
BLOCK: Well, Tom, the men's final last night was about as exciting as it gets, Louisville versus Michigan. Have a great time there in New Orleans tonight. I hope it's a great one.
GOLDMAN: Thanks a lot, Melissa.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Tom Goldman. He's covering the women's NCAA championship game.
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