NEW ORLEANS — Louisville coach Jeff Walz knows he has to come up with something really special this time.
His team has been playing phenomenal basketball in the NCAA women’s tournament — scoring a stunning victory against overall No. 1 seed Baylor, followed by an impressive win over Tennessee, a No. 2 seed. The fifth-seeded Cardinals surged past California, another No. 2 seed, on Sunday in the national semifinals with an unbelievable second half.
But the Cardinals’ toughest test comes last — in Tuesday night’s championship game against Connecticut and its Hall of Fame coach, Geno Auriemma, in the New Orleans Arena.
The Cardinals were strangers to Baylor, Tennessee and Cal, which all seemed perplexed by Louisville’s often unorthodox style. That likely won’t be the case with UConn, a fellow Big East Conference school. Although the teams met just once this season, they are familiar to each other.
“It’s going to take the best game that we played to date,” Walz said. “We’re going to have to play better than we played against Baylor, better than we played against Tennessee and Cal. We’re going to have to play 40 minutes of pretty much perfect basketball, which I think we can.”
On the way to the final, the Cardinals faced the dominance of Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Tennessee’s hot shooting and California’s dominant rebounding. Asked what he was most concerned about against UConn, Walz said, “Their talent. They’re loaded.”
After an 18-point victory Sunday against nemesis Notre Dame, the Huskies appear hungry for a championship that would secure their place in the program’s illustrious history.
A victory would give UConn and Auriemma eight championships, tying it with Tennessee (and former coach Pat Summitt) for the most by a women’s program. Connecticut’s most recent national title came in 2010, so this would be the first title for most of this team, which has just three seniors. That was rarely the case from 2000-10, when UConn won six crowns.
In their lone meeting this season, the Huskies pounced on the visiting Cardinals 72-58. UConn led 37-23 at halftime, but Louisville battled evenly 35-35 in the second half.
“I think that by just playing a UConn, a team can get really excited and over-hyped,” said Louisville point guard Bria Smith, who had 17 points and six rebounds against Cal. “We came out pushing (the pace) too much. But as the game went on, we settled in, and we started playing better by the end.”
It’s that experience of playing the Huskies — especially the second half — that has the Cardinals feeling things can be different this time. They won’t be nervous from the start, they said.
Smith was starting just her second game at point guard in thatJan. 15 matchup, with Shoni Schimmel having moved over to shooting guard. That was 22 games ago, and Louisville has evolved since then.
“We did it to get the ball out of Shoni’s hands, to free her to score more,” he said. “It took a lot of the pressure off her, and her shooting percentage has gone up. And Bria has done a great job.”
Walz didn’t even want to talk about the first time the teams played, saying he doesn’t remember a thing about it.
“We’re playing better basketball,” he said. “Our kids are confident. We believe in what we’re doing. That’s all that needs to be said.”
The Cardinals have won in the NCAA tournament with torrid outside shooting, by mixing defenses effectively and by playing loose and confident. Auriemma has taken note of the 3-point shooting of forward Antonita Slaughter, who was 6-of-10 against Cal and has made 22 3s in the tournament.
“I watched that game (Sunday), and (Walz) must be a genius,” Auriemma said. “Every time I see that kid catch the ball, she’s wide open. And I can understand if it’s the first game of the tournament, but here they are now in the fifth game in the NCAA tournament, and the kid for 40 minutes is wide open every time she catches it.”
The Huskies don’t appear concerned about the Cardinals’ “junk” defenses, which have caused teams to unravel.
“We have so many good ball-handlers and scorers, I don’t see it as a problem,” said junior guard Bria Hartley, who has had a resurgence in the tournament after struggling earlier in the season with an ankle injury that she kept secret. She had 16 points and seven rebounds in the teams’ first meeting.
Auriemma shrugged, suggesting that whatever defense Louisville brings, it will come down to how well its players guard the Huskies one-on-one.
“In the end, every defense is the same,” he said. “It might start out looking a little bit different, it might take a different shape or form at the beginning. But after one or two passes, every defense is the same.”
Nonetheless, with his team coming off an emotional win — Notre Dame had beaten UConn in the teams’ first three meetings this season — Auriemma said he is concerned about how it will play out Tuesday night, particularly given the pressure of the nationalchampionship game.
“The great fallacy of coaching is that it’s just another game,” he said. “No, it isn’t. It’s the nationalchampionship game.
“My experience is that it’s a hard game to play early on. You really need to let the emotions wear off, and that’s going to take a little bit of time.”