NEW ORLEANS — Every team has its ups and downs during a season. That’s why they refer to journeys such as this as climbing the ladder of success. Not even iconic UConn is immune to slipping once in awhile.
“I think we’ve mentioned it before, we can almost count on one hand what it felt like, how many practices we’ve had where everyone was there, that type of thing,” Kelly Faris said.
Then again, not every program is UConn, with the depth and capability to adapt to injuries and inconveniences like the Huskies have done in the first 38 games this season.
“When you get to this point in the season, you know that everybody’s had their ups and downs as well and some worse than others,” Faris said.
For the Huskies (34-4) there is only one more rung to climb to reach the ultimate high. That happens tonight at the New Orleans Arena when they play Louisville (29-8) for the national championship.
If UConn wins, it will be their eighth title, tying Geno Auriemma with Pat Summitt for the most in women’s basketball history. It will also leave Auriemma just two short of tying John Wooden’s record of 10. And with a new five-year deal to start next season, and a rising group of freshmen, the possibilities are positive.
To do this, they will need to turn Louisville’s shiny chariot into a pumpkin. Impressive wins over No. 1 Baylor, Tennessee and California in the last three rounds have been a credit to the resolve of a well-coached team that believes anything is possible.
“We think that we are not done with what we’ve come here to do, and that is to win a national championship,” Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel said. “And we’re ready for anything. Why not go out with a bang?”
Louisville hasn’t defeated UConn since 1993, a span of 11 straight defeats. It lost this season’s Big East Conference meeting 72-58 in Hartford on January 15. But this time they have shooters like Schimmel and Antonita Slaughter on a hot streak.
“We didn’t execute well,” Louisville’s Bria Smith said. “But it’s later in the season now and we know what’s going to come with UConn, its game plan and everything. I think we are going to be more ready.”
Louisville has never won a national championship. In fact, it hasn’t played for one since 2009 when UConn beat its Angel McCoughtry-led team in the final game of Renee Montgomery’s career.
“Our realistic expectations from the first day of practice was to be playing here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “I thought we had a talented enough team and a deep enough team to get to the Final Four.”
But even to a greater extent than UConn, the Cardinals have dealt with crippling injuries the cost Asia Taylor (hip) Shawnta’ Dyer (ACL) and Tia Gibbs (hip). And they survived.
Still, UConn is a formidable foe, one that allowed just under 50 points in its first five NCAA games. It is riding the emotional high of brushing off the burden of losing four straight to Notre Dame by beating the Irish in Sunday’s semifinal.
And they are playing remarkably well, led by freshman Breanna Stewart, the most outstanding player of the Bridgeport Regional, who scored a career-high 29 points in the win over Notre Dame.
“I’m hoping she misses the bus (to the game),” Walz said with a smile.
Stewart, the national high school player of the year in 2012, has scored 110 points in five NCAA Tournament postseason games, the most in program history.
“For your teammates to be relying on you, well, that’s what you want as a player,” Stewart said. “You want them to depend on you to make the big shots and do things like that.”
Asked if a championship win would signal the start of another great era for the Huskies made Auriemma pause. Superstitious, he does not like to speculate on hypothetical questions, especially those that can fire back at such a sensitive time.
“Talking about things that haven’t happened yet is never a good idea,” Auriemma said. “I think when the game is over on Tuesday if we don’t win then it will be a sad way for the seniors to graduate. If we do win, it’s an amazing way for them to finish their careers.”