After watching the Louisville Cardinals fight from behind to defeat a criminally under-appreciated California Golden Bears team 64-57, few believed the #PartyCrashers could avenge their earlier defeat to UConn (72-58) and claim Louisville's first women's basketball national championship.
With different players, the expectation for tomorrow night's National Championship game appear to be a similar result to the 2009 title game, which UConn won 76-54 after Louisville managed to upset Oklahoma in the semifinal game.
On Monday, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma cautioned the masses.
"I don't think the average person out there understands that this is what makes it so hard, is that Baylor didn't have to play Louisville in a best of five series," he said. "We didn't have to play Notre Dame last night and then again tomorrow night and then two nights later. You only have to win one game in this tournament, and then you have to win another one, but it's not against the same team. So all you need is one good night, and the other team struggles just a little, and it changes everything."
UConn defeated Louisville 72-58 earlier in the season without Breanna Stewart, and 76-54 in the 2009 National Championship game.
Is there any reason to expect a different result?
Louisville defeated defending national champion Baylor 82-81 behind 16-for-25 shooting from the 3-point line despite shooting only 32.6% from there on the season. Louisville Head Coach Jeff Walz said prior to the game against Cal that, "If we can continue to go 7 for our first 10 from the 3-point line, I think we'll have a chance to compete with most teams."
In their first meeting, Louisville shot only 4-19 from the 3-point line, well below its average. UConn's defense held Notre Dame without a 3-point field goal in the 1st half on Sunday night and limited opponents to 28.8% from the 3-point line on the season. The ability to take and make 3-pointers is the key to Louisville's chances.
College basketball analytics expert Ken Pomeroy theorized that 3-point defense is not about contesting shots but limiting attempts. Louisville averaged 5.9 made 3-pointers per game on 18 attempts. To defeat UConn, Louisville likely will need 25+ 3-point attempts.
"If we have a chance to win, it's not going to be a 60-55 game - it's got to be 84-83," Walz said. "We might have to try and get up into the 90s if we can, and the only way we're going to do that is by shooting the basketball. We're going to shoot 3s. He knows that. It's not going to be a secret."
UConn's challenge will be to limit the attempts
Against Cal, with Shoni Schimmel held to 1-8 from the 3-point line, Antonita Slaughter stepped out and made 6-10 3-pointers. Slaughter is the Cardinals' best percentage 3-point shooter at 36%, and she took advantage of a favorable match-up when moved to the power forward position.
"I watched that game yesterday, and it's just he's got to be a genius, that guy," Auriemma quipped. "Because every time I see that kid [Slaughter] 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 their fifth game in the NCAA Tournament and the kid for 40 minutes is wide open every time she catches it."
Walz does not expect the same wide open shots against UConn. As he said on Monday, "I've got a feeling they'll probably find where Antonita is."
Auriemma added, "All I can say is if we're there, and we have a hand in her face, and she still makes them, then God bless them, they deserve to win."
Against Cal, playing four guards meant Slaughter was defended by one of Cal's posts; against UConn, playing four guards means the 6'1" Slaughter would be matched up against the 6'4" Stewart who is comfortable defending on the perimeter and who has the length to bother a shorter shooter. Depending on how you view the position revolution, UConn starts the game with four guards; they're just fortunate to have a 6'4" guard.
"We're gonna have to play, I mean, 40 minutes of pretty much perfect basketball, which I think we can," Walz said. "It's like I've said from day one: I'm just glad it's not a best of seven series."
What will perfect basketball for Louisville look like?
First, Louisville cannot afford turnovers. They will, of course, commit turnovers, but they have to keep the number low. Cal was able to jump ahead in the first half, in part, because of Louisville's 8 first-half turnovers, 4 by starting point guard Bria Smith who finished with only 2 assists to go with 8 turnovers. Louisville needs shot attempts.
Second, they have to shoot and make 3-pointers.
"They're going to be out pressuring us, but we're going to have to figure out a way to score points," Walz said. "I know they're going to score, but it's a matter of can we score."
Based on their style of play, Louisville has 3 prominent ways to attack UConn. First, play fast and shoot quickly. If Louisville can get the ball up the court and shoot transition 3-pointers, they may be able to get Shoni Schimmel and Slaughter some easier shots. I imagine UConn will start in a three-quarter court press - not unlike what Louisville played in the second half to slow down Cal - to slow down Louisville's transition.
In the half court, involving UConn's Stefanie Dolson in on-ball screens is one way to attack. Due to her foot injuries, Dolson is not as mobile as usual. Louisville had success late in the game against Cal with Sara Hammond slipping ball screens to counter Cal's hard hedge against Louisville's shooters. If Smith and Hammond run the pick-and-roll, they can spot up three shooters. If UConn's players help on the pick-and-roll, Smith or Hammond can kick out to the shooters; if UConn stays at home on the shooters, Hammond and Smith can play 2v2 in the middle of the court, which should give them an advantage.
If UConn does stay home, Smith will have to cut down on her turnovers from Sunday night and continue to finish well, as she went 6-for-7 for 17 points against Cal. Incidentally, the likely point guard match-up between UConn's Bria Hartley and Louisville's Bria Smith will be the second time in Hartley's last three games (Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill) that she has played against a former workout partner from Jerry Powell's gym in East Babylon, New York.
UConn likes to defend on-ball screens by forcing the ball handler away from the screen. This may work against them against Louisville, as Louisville runs some good sets where the on-ball screener sets a screen for a shooter to fill behind the ball.
In a Smith/Hammond on-ball screen on the wing, for example, Hartley would take away the middle and force to the baseline. Dolson's responsibility is to sit in the lane to the basket. Hammond would set the screen and roll away to set a screen for Schimmel. As Smith dribbles toward the baseline and engages Hartley and Dolson, Hammond's screen should free Schimmel, as Dolson would not be there to hedge.
The other option is to use two shooters in the on-ball screens. If UConn forces the ball handler away from the screen, when the ball handler engages both defenders, the screener can pop and be open behind the three-point line. With a four-guard line-up, I would expect Slaughter to set these pick-and-pop screens to try to create space for her to get shots.
Most of the focus thus far has been on Louisville's offense because they are going to be hard-pressed to stop UConn.
"That was the difference in the Baylor game," Walz said. "Everybody talks about how we guarded Brittney Griner and all that. Again, they scored 81 points, which is their average. We just figured out a way to score 82. So tomorrow night we're gonna have to figure out a way to put points on the board."
Despite his emphasis on offense, Louisville will have to play defense.
Defending UConn is tough
UConn scored 83 against Notre Dame, and their offense appears to be peaking at the right time. In their first meeting, UConn shot 9-29 from the 3-point line for 31%, below its 37.5% average. Louisville's defense holds opponents to 28.6% from the 3-point line. The number of attempts (29) either demonstrated very good defense or very bad defense depending on your perspective of basketball analytics. If UConn shoots close to 30 3-pointers on Tuesday, it will be a long night for Louisville.
Walz has said that he likes to take away an opponent's best player and force the other players to make shots. Against UConn right now, that likely means taking away Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and forcing players like Faris, Dolson, and Hartley to make shots. That is a dangerous proposition when you are daring an All-American (Dolson) or a senior who does nothing but win games (Faris) to beat you, but with the way that UConn is playing right now, that might have to be the gamble.
I imagine Walz will mix up some presses to try to keep UConn off balance, change defenses frequently, hope to keep Hammond out of foul trouble, and take away the hot players in Stewart and KML. If Louisville can do those things and prevent Faris from getting too many offensive rebounds and backdoor-cut lay-ups, and the offense does its part, Louisville certainly has the fire power to beat UConn, as it has shown already in defeating a #1 and two #2 seeds. Beating that second #1 seed will be the toughest win yet, as UConn appears to be the most complete team right now, and everything changes when it is the championship game.
"Where we're right now, this is where it counts," UConn senior Kelly Faris said. "And we've gotten to this point, so there's no reason to sit here and think about all the past games. Or even going in to play against Louisville. We can't sit there and think about when we played them earlier in the season. They're a completely different team, and we have to be as well."
UConn is a bad match-up for Louisville
UConn is susceptible to on-ball defensive pressure, but Louisville does not have a defender like Cal's Eliza Pierre or Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins to apply constant pressure. Louisville has relied on the 3-point shot in the tournament, but UConn is actually the better shooting team from behind the arc. UConn makes their free throws. UConn possesses the kind of PF in Stewart who can defend Slaughter when Louisville goes to four guards, and punish her in the paint when UConn has the ball. UConn also possesses the type of smart, quick, longer defender in Kelly Faris who can chase Shoni Schimmel in much the same way that Clarendon did on Sunday night when Schimmel went 1-8. Of course, Baylor had Odyssey Sims and Brittany Griner who are huge match-up problems for any team, and especially Louisville.
Louisville has two things going for them which give them a shot: (1) They are shooting the three-pointer better in the tournament than the regular season, and the three-point shot can be the great neutralizer. If they are able to get 21+ attempts, without forcing too many bad shots, they have a chance; (2) Walz has shown to be an adept game-planner and manager during the tournament.
During Sunday's semifinal, Cal appeared to be in complete control in the first half. Louisville went to a 1-2-2 three-quarter court defense to slow down the Bears, and it worked in taking away some of Cal's aggressiveness. When Pierre was on the court in the second half, Louisville played some junk defenses, whether it was simply not guarding Pierre or playing a triangle-and-2. Louisville face-guarded Clarendon for much of the second half and dared the other players to score. Sure, Brittany Boyd made a wide open 3-pointer, which gave Cal fans hope, but the overall change worked - they limited the posts inside and Clarendon's open looks, confused Cal, slowed down Cal, and ultimately won.
"It's hard, the game's so fast, but there was a stretch where they were really throwing a lot of junk at us, and 19 turnovers is high for us," Clarendon said after Sunday night's game. "We just turned the ball over. We were kind of getting lost and they were making a lot of baskets, picking up momentum."
Walz downplayed his and his team's ability to confuse or slow down UConn in a similar way.
"That's not going to be the case tomorrow night," Walz said. "[Auriemma] knows what our players can do. We know what their players can do. Now it's going to come down to just flat out execution because we're not going to be able to surprise them. We're not going to be able to junk it up. We're going to have to play basketball."
A game of execution would seem to favor UConn. Louisville needs to make the game as close to a pick-up game as possible: run the floor, shoot the 3, play free and easy, and try to get a couple key stops to close out the game.
UConn's players have been here before, but as Shoni Schimmel might say, they're Louisville, you know? And they're just going to keep going at them. Walz believes.
"We're playing better basketball," he said. "I mean, our kids are confident, and there's really not much more to say, to be honest with you. We believe in what we're doing."
Brian McCormick is an experienced coach and player development expert whose basketball insights about everything from youth development to point guard play are valuable for any thoughtful basketball fan. He has previously contributed to Swish Appeal during the 2012 Final Four and with his thoughts on why developing coaching expertise at mid-majors is good for women's college basketball.
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