Louisville’s dream ends in lopsided loss

NEW ORLEANS — Sooner or later, all good things come to an end.

Women’s basketball fans across the nation were captivated by Louisville after the Cardinals ousted No. 1 overall seed Baylor in the Sweet 16. Louisville’s gritty defense and free-wheeling offense, which featured a barrage of 3-pointers, won over legions of fans.

Louisville’s Cinderella-like run toward a national title ended Tuesday night in strangely familiar fashion.

There was tenacious defense, along with plenty of 3-pointers. Only this time, it was Connecticut making all the big plays.

The Huskies (35-4) completed their date with destiny by claiming a 93-60 win over Louisville in the title game that capped the Women’s Final Four at the New Orleans Arena.

Simply put, UConn won its record-tying eighth NCAA title by beating Louisville at what had seemingly been the Cardinals’ game through most of the NCAA tourney. The Huskies dispatched Big East rival Louisville the same way they had dominated conference rival Notre Dame in an 83-65 semifinal win Sunday night.

Louisville certainly started out on the right foot. The Cardinals (29-9) scored the first basket on a 3-pointer by Sara Hammond. Later, Hammond, who led Louisville with 15 points, scored on a layup to give her team an 11-7 lead.

“I thought we came out and fought with them for a while,” Hammond said. “They are a great team, and they made it to the championship game for a reason, but so did we.”

The Cardinals maintained a four-point lead until the 12:54 mark of the first half. Then, UConn erupted for 19 straight points.

There was more to what UConn did than just offense, though tournament Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart scored 18 of her game-high 23 points in the first half. While working through Louisville’s defense, the Huskies put a stranglehold on the Cardinals’ offense.

UConn’s defense was no gimmick. The Huskies simply denied key Cardinals shooters and made every shot difficult.

Louisville made just 10 of 30 first-half shots from the field. Junior guard Shoni Schimmel, the Cardinals’ flamboyant leader, made 1 of 8 first-half shots and didn’t make a 3-pointer until the second half. She finished 3 of 15 with one 3-pointer and nine points.

UConn also limited the chances for Antonita Slaughter, who had six 3-pointers in a semifinal win over California. Slaughter found few openings in the UConn defense and also finished with nine points, making just 1 of 4 3-pointers. Louisville made just 5 of 23 3-pointers on the night, making it more of a nightmare. By contrast, UConn made 13 of 26.

“Playing in the Big East, we all kind of know each other,” Schimmel said. “They knew what to do to stop us, and that was to limit my touches and not really let me shoot. We came up short. You can’t ask for more. … We gave it all we had.”

A 3-pointer by Schimmel to open the second half helped Louisville cut into UConn’s 48-29 halftime lead only slightly. Unlike Sunday’s semifinal when the Cardinals rallied past Cal, there was no magic left.

Louisville’s dream of becoming the first No. 5 seed to win a title was over long before the final buzzer. Cardinals coach Jeff Walz lauded his team’s run to the final as one of the best ever.

“We just came up one game short,” he said. “But I’m proud of my players. I’m proud of everyone. We’re going to hold our heads high and be proud of what we did.”