Huskies, though, get big test tonight at home when 4th ranked Louisville arrives with only one loss, but a poor
history against top-ranked, undefeated UConn
By Arnie Leshin
To Sabrina Lozada-Cabbage, it was like watching a move and then meeting the cast.
The 6-foot-2 Wichita State sophomore post out of Santa Fe High has played enough basketball to know good from bad, for the University of Connecticut’s women’s teams, she had only one word, “Great.”
“I had watched some of their games on TV,” she said, “but when you then take the court against them, it’s all together different. I mean, the game just started and they were racing up and down the court, firing in 3s from all over, and putting up points in rapid order.”
A member of the Santa Fe High state championship team in 2014, Lozada-Cabbage had to catch her breath to offer her impressions of UConn, this past Saturday’s opponent.
“Defense,” she said, “forget about it. They just come at you, swiping the ball and firing it to a teammate for an easy layup. I heard about this, watched some of it on television, but wasn’t expecting them to run all over us. I mean, 124 points with their bench playing the entire fourth quarter.”
She said when her team landed at Hartford International Airport Friday morning, all the chatter there was about the UConn women. That was the conversation, but all you could do is listen, no way to steal any secrets. And hours before Saturday’s game began, she said she couldn’t believe the packed house at the Harford Center, the Huskies’ other home base.
The final score was 124-43. Lozada-Cabbage, who red-shirted her freshman year after still recovering from knee surgery, started, but she and her Shocker teammates knew they were finished early.
“It is difficult to keep up with them,” she said, “because they come at you from all directions, and it’s not just one player, it’s their five on the court, and that’s offense and defense. And they are patient. They will come down court and just quickly fire the ball around. No bad shots, just precision until an open man lines up a shot. As for shooting the 3, they all do.
“Oh, and I heard they shot 71 percent.”
Lozada-Cabbage scored two baskets, one on a follow-up underneath, and the other on a short jumper. She committed four turnovers and was whistled for two fouls in the first quarter. She took down four rebounds and sat the bench in the fourth quarter while her other teammates took the blows.
Under genius Geno Auriemma, the mastermind behind this program, UConn (24-0) has won a record 11 national championships, had won a record 111 in a row before the overtime buzzer loss to Mississippi State in last year’s NCAA semifinals in Dallas. The Huskies on the road? Well, how about 47-straight road victories.
So after Auriemma, who was still celebrating his Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl success, admitted after yet another rout that Wichita was simply overmatched, he became serious when asked about tonight’s opponent, 4th ranked Louisville (25-1).
“Now that’s a different game,” he said. “This is a very good team that has two of the best players in the country. They are well coached, play a tough schedule, and we will have to play at our best. Yes, it’s a different game.”
This one will be played on campus, at the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, and those that don’t have tickets will have to hope there are scalpers hanging around. The Cardinals are 25-1 and this marks the last realistic chance that UConn could lose a game before the NCAA tournament, and that counts its mastery in the American Athletic Conference, where’s it has never lost.
For Louisville, though, this is a major test in the middle of a very competitive ACC race with Notre Dame. And it’s a chance to show that the Huskies aren’t miles and miles ahead of the Cardinals.
Twice these former programs have met for the NCAA title – in 2009 and 2013 – and UConn won both in blowouts, by 22 and 23 points. In fact, the Huskies have won all but one of their 17 meetings with Louisville, the loss coming in 1993, two years before UConn claimed its first national title.
Louisville head coach Jeff Walz was still a college student back then. He took over the Louisville program in his home state of Kentucky in 2007 and has made it a perennial contender.
Facing UConn, though, has been a frustration. Their last meeting was in 2014 during the Cardinals’ one-year stay in the American Athletic Conference before joining the ACC. They played the Huskies in the conference final and lost 72-52.
In the three years since then, only two schools have defeated UConn, Stanford at the start of the 2014-15 season before a full house in Palo Alto, and Mississippi State in last year’s NCAA overtime semis.
As Auriemma said, the Cards have a potent one-two punch in 5-10 guard Asia Durr, who is averaging almost 20 points a game, and 6-4 forward Myiaha Hines-Allen, who is averaging 14 per game. Their defeat was 50-49 at home against then 10th-ranked Florida State.
Last season, everyone including Auriemma, expected the Huskies to have some growing pains, yet they were unbeaten until the buzzer-beater versus Mississippi State.
This season, with seniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, and juniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson playing together for the third straight year, and sophomore point guard Chrystal Dangerfield growing into one of the best in that role in the country, it didn’t hurt to include 6-6 junior transfer Azura Stevens, and she’s been a big addition whether starting or coming in off the bench.
Aside from Stevens, Samuelson at 6-3 is the tallest Husky. But she’s all over the court tossing in 3s, playing sticky defense, and showing her versatility while Stevens, who averaged 22 a game while at Duke, can rebound, post, block shots, run the floor, and also shoot the 3, so she fits right in. Balance? Well, six of their players scored in double figures against the Shockers, and their defense was like buzzing bees coming at you.
Louisville doesn’t have this balance, but it does have three players standing 6-4, two at 6-3, and plays aggressive defense. Hines-Allen and Durr are the offensive weapons of a talented lineup with good bench strength.
Asked about this match-up, Lozada-Cabbage laughed.
“I don’t know much about Louisville,” she said, “but I do know about UConn, and they are special.”
Game time 5 p.m. mountain time on ESPN 2.
NOTE: University of South Florida, the usual runner-up to UConn in the AAC, on Sunday crushed the stories that had its conference as a weak conference, by rolling at home over 13th-ranked Ohio State, 83-64. The Bulls are not ranked and held a 31-13 lead that grew as large as 28 over the Big 10 Buckeyes, who are 18-4.
As for the Huskies, the win over Wichita State was their 192nd over a team with a losing record and their 152nd in a row over an unranked opponent, and they’ve won 87 straight games while playing another team for the first time. In the AAC, they have won every time, 82 in the regular season and 12 times in winning four conference titles.