LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Even in a new league, Connecticut doesn’t believe in sharing the wealth.
The top-ranked Huskies showed that in squashing No. 3 Louisville’s quest to forge a tie in the American Athletic Conference by overwhelming the Cardinals on the boards and other areas.
Leading the way was sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, whose 22 points and 14 rebounds led UConn to a 68-48 victory Monday night that helped the Huskies complete an unbeaten regular season.The win was the Huskies’ 37th straight — the third longest streak in school history.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 13 points and 10 boards for the Huskies (31-0, 18-0 AAC), who outrebounded Louisville (28-3, 16-2) 47-30 and outran the Cardinals to add the inaugural league title to their collection of Big East trophies. The defending NCAA champions also beat the Cardinals for the 14th straight time.
While Huskies coach Geno Auriemma has stressed taking nothing for granted with the possibility of facing Louisville again in this week’s conference tournament, he also told his players to savor their latest milestone achieved with 10 wins over ranked schools this season.
“It’s something to be proud of,” Auriemma said. “We don’t talk about it very often. We don’t stand on a podium and shout ‘We’re great.’ But we’ve done some really great things this past year and sometimes we need to step back and take a look at it.”
Like last month’s meeting in Storrs, Conn., UConn turned a small run into big momentum ending with another decisive victory. This time, it was an 11-0 first-half spurt for a 32-22 lead that eventually grew to 22 in the second half.
The Huskies ended up snapping Louisville’s five-game winning streak and spoiling the home finales for four seniors including guard Shoni Schimmel, who scored nine points before a school record crowd of 22,163. Schimmel had said that the Cardinals would eventually “get” UConn, but they shot just 38 percent (20 of 53), making just 11 shots after starting 9 of 12 from the field.
Of Schimmel’s statement, Stewart said, “she said she was going to get us but we just won the conference. If we see them in the conference tournament, which we might, I think it’s going to be a difficult game again. But I’m glad I play on this team.”
UConn wasn’t much better at 40 percent (26 of 65 from the field), but owned many areas en route to its 37th straight win — the third longest winning streak in school history. The Huskies scored 18 points off 16 Cardinals turnovers, outscored them 15-2 on second-chance baskets and made 7 of 22 3-pointers.
Senior guard Tia Gibbs scored 16 points and junior forward Sara Hammond 12 for Louisville, which made just 4 of 15 from behind the 3-point arc. The Cardinals had hoped to be better the second time around, but just couldn’t keep up with the Huskies’ pace or rebounding after the early moments.
“That’s what killed us,” said Cardinals coach Jeff Walz, whose team still achieved its best regular-season finish. “We did a great job in the first 10 minutes on the offensive end, but we just had absolute breakdowns (on defense). We could’ve been up by 12, but we just kept trading baskets with them, and you can’t do that.”
The outcome disappointed an energetic crowd on a night honoring Native Americans, with 40 states including Alaska represented. Many were there to support Schimmel, Louisville’s No. 2 career scorer, and sister Jude, a Cardinals guard, both of whom are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in Oregon.
Emotion from a pregame ceremony honoring Schimmel, Gibbs, Asia Taylor and Antonita Slaughter carried over to the first two minutes as the Cardinals scored the game’s first seven points with Schimmel sandwiching a 3-pointer between jumpers by Taylor and Hammond.
Unfazed by its biggest deficit this season, UConn rallied to tie the game at 16 nearly four minutes later behind two long-range jumpers by Mosqueda-Lewis and one by Moriah Jefferson.
The Huskies trailed just three more times after that before the pivotal run for a 10-point lead with 8:12 remaining in the half. UConn led 43-31 at halftime behind 46 percent shooting and six 3s, going on to wear down the Cardinals with its trademark hustle.
Louisville never got closer than 10 after that.
“I don’t really get caught up in how much we’ve been down,” Auriemma said. “I just know if you’re going to run up and down with us and give us open 3s like they were going to give us, then at some point we’re going to make more than you are. That’s what ended up happening in the first half.”