Tuesday, April 9, 2013

David and Goliath, Elsewhere Known as UConn and Louisville: Women's Final Tips Tonight

Uh Oh. Looks who is baaack:

photo:  espn.com
UConn, losers of the previous three matches with Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame, lit the Irish's offensive sets on fire and made s'mores. On the offensive end, freshman Breeana Stewart bombed them with shots from every spot on the court. Yup. UConn is back. And playing their best basketball of the year. The Huskies look positively UConnian.

photo:  Lee Michaelson
Their opponent tonight in the final is about as much fun as you can have, short of a can of silly string and finger paints. Shoni Schimmel does crazy things on the court. She drives into Brittney Griner. She gets in the face of Odessey Sims. She makes ridiculous no-look behind the back bounce passes to her sister. She drains tres. But mostly, I think, she inspires her team. Even so, I haven't seen Louisville do what UConn just did -- put together a complete 40 minute game.

And somehow, even when having lapses and lulls, the Cardinals have gone on this run, taking out Baylor, Tennessee and Cal. It is nothing short of miraculous. It's not always pretty but it is always, always fun. With Shoni Schimmel held in check offensively on Sunday night, the Cards played shut down defense in the second half, holding Cal to just 20 points in 20 minutes. That's just crazy. Then the rest of the Cards -- Antonita Slaughter, Shoni's sister Jude, and  the rest of the Cards stepped up, erased a 10 point deficit, then set to work to build their own lead. Every time I count them out, the rise to the occasion.

But as fun and magical and incredible as this run has been, they can't be UConn, can they? Can they?

Let's take a quick look through the numbers.

First, there's the history. UConn is, well, UConn, the most storied women's team the history of women's sports not named Tennessee. Coach Geno Auriemma is looking for his eighth national title (which would tie the great Pat Summitt.) But that's history, right? There's no Sue Bird on this UConn team, no Diana Taurasi, no Maya Moore.

Still, they're UConn. Their average scoring margin advantage this season? 33.2 points per game, best in the nation. (This includes beating up on very good teams in the regular season by wide margins -- Duke by 30 points, Texas A & M by 31 points, Stanford by 26 points, South Florida by 34, lest you think the stat is padded with a bunch of 'Little Sisters of the Poor and Meek' type teams.) In the tournament, their average margin of victory is 35 points.

On the other hand, Louisville's average is not quite in that rarified air, but it is a very respectable 14.8 point per game advantage. And the games in the tourney have been nail-biters, nearly all of them but the first round.

What about the players? UConn has a huge height advantage, with four players over 6' 2" tall -- Stephanie Dolson (6' 5"), Morgan Tuck (6' 2"), Breeana Stewart (6' 4") and the little used (due to injury) Kiah Stokes (6' 3").

The Cards counter with freshman Sarah Hammond (6' 2") and ... okay, Sarah Hammond. Okey-Doke. I guess this is a literal David v. Goliath situation then.

And then there's that UConn defense, capable of discombobulating even the best offenses. Consider what they did to Skylar Diggins, the best point guard I've ever seen in the womens' game, just this past Sunday night? Notre Dame's offense was hinky and out of joint. They were forcing bad shots and each player was trying to win the game on her own -- which is completely unlike them. Did Notre Dame just fall apart out of nowhere? Not bloody likely. No. UConn's defense did that to them.

It seems impossible an impossible task for Louisville to take down this team, doesn't it? But the Cards have two things going for them.

photo:  Gerald Herbert, AP
One is that the Schimmel sisters play fearlessly. They play 'Rez Ball' as it is affectionately known. Shoni is a firey player and Jude is much more cerebral, but their teammates feed off of both of them, I think. This team team ain't skeered. They ain't skeered of anybody. And as they play UConn every year in the Big East, they are less intimidated than other teams might be. (Not that that helped the Irish much on Sunday night.)

The other thing the Cards have going for them is that defense. Since taking over at Louisville in 2007, Jeff Walz has taken the Cards to two NCAA Championship games (this year and in 2008-2009, when the Cards lost to UConn.) If you're reading this post, chances are you know a good bit about UConn's Geno Auriemma, but you may not remember that Walz was an assistant coach for Brenda Frese at Maryland when the Terps won the championship in 2006 versus Duke. Walz has been so good at Louisville, such a defensive master, that I have started to believe that he was one of the biggest reasons for that national championship in Maryland. In the last week or so, he has created defenses to shut down Baylor and Tennessee and Cal. If anybody can think of a way to shut down Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breeana Stewart, this is the guy to do it.

Given all the above givens -- the history, the size advantage, the records -- by any measure this is UConn's game to lose. I don't think that Louisville has an answer to Stewart, who came to life in the Elite 8 and has been unconscious ever since. I haven't seen Louisville play a complete 40 minute game yet. Can they? Can they match UConn for 40 minutes? Can they find a way to curb Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis and Dolson and Bria Hartley? It's a tall task. 

There is the very real possibility of a UConn blow out. 

But there is also the possibility of history being made. 

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