Albany, N.Y. – Connecticut scrapped and clawed their way to their 12th consecutive Final Four Sunday, with an 80-73 win over No. 1 seed Louisville.
Katie Lou Samuelson led all Husky starters in double figures, with 29 points, while both Megan Walker and Napheesa Collier had double-doubles.
The final period began with an exchange of baskets, and Connecticut stretched the lead to seven. When Samuelson returned, at 6:51 to play, and the lead at just three, she scored seven points over five possessions to give her team its largest lead at 11. Louisville’s Asia Durr responded with a jumper in the paint, and after a turnover, two free throws to cut the lead to seven with 4:10 remaining. Samuelson answered with eight points over the next three minutes, to take the lead to 11. But the Cardinal’s defensive pressure almost won it for them.
Over the next 70 seconds, Louisville literally nearly stole the game by forcing three Husky turnovers, keying an 8-1 run that cut the lead to two with 26 seconds left, as Dana Evans forced a jump ball on the inbounds and Arica Carter scored to cut the lead to just two points.
Samuelson made two free throws while Durr missed two of her own, and Collier and Walker made their shots from the stripe down the stretch to close out the win.
Durr had 21 points for the Cardinals, while Sam Fuehring added 15.
Husky coach Geno Auriemma emphasized the difficulty of the win and Samuelson’s performance.
“I knew that it was going to turn out to be either Asia Durr, or somebody on our team that was going to step up and have a huge night,” he said. “Because in these games, that’s usually what happens. There’s no trick offenses or trick defenses you’re going to come up with. Or run any fancy plays. At this time of year, in these games, either one of their guys or one of our guys is going to be the big difference. And tonight, it happened to be Lou (Samuelson).”
Although this was the first of four No.1 versus No. 2 games in the tournament, the distinction between the teams was only who wore the white jerseys. Louisville was responsible for one of Connecticut’s two losses, but had three of its own on the year.
Throughout, every defensive stop and every score was contested and each was meaningful. The fourth quarter was must-see basketball, and became a contest between Durr and Samuelson with the game on the line, seemingly on every play.
It was a game of runs, and the Huskies managed just enough push-back to each charge by the Cardinals. Or, put another way, Louisville answered every Connecticut run.
The Huskies had double digit leads in each of the last three quarters, keyed by a remarkable 14-26 on three-pointers. In each case, the Cardinals ever let up, cutting each of those leads to four or less during the same period.
When Durr shot poorly in the first half (1-10), Louisville demonstrated that it was far from a one-woman show. Seven Cardinals scored in the half, and no one was standing around waiting for their star to take over.
Connecticut led 41-34 at the half, but it was clear the game would go down to the final minutes. The third quarter featured exchanges of scoring, and fans were on edge when Samuelson picked up her fourth foul with three minutes remaining in the third period. Louisville closed the third quarter on a 6-0 run after Samuelson went to the bench, cutting the lead to four points.
Cardinal coach Jeff Walz had no doubt that his team’s defense could give them a chance to win, even late in the game.
“We compete.,” he said. “I knew we weren’t going to quit. That’s why I saved my two time outs.”
“We come up with a steal, we get a quick back door for a layup. And then all of sudden when we needed to call them, I was able to call them, and we executed, and it was pretty special.”
A Husky meltdown, reminiscent of the last two Final Four semifinal losses, appeared imminent. But this year, Connecticut refused let it happen.
Walz said his team had a bad shooting night.
“We refused to quit, continued to compete, and that’s what you ask of them. I tell them all the time, if you’re going to lose a basketball game, just make sure you lose because you’re not making shots,” Walz said. “And in the first half, we had some great looks, we just couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t get some shots that normally go down to go down in the first half that we that we usually make, but we continued to fight.”
The Huskies won, not because Louisville missed, but because they hit 14 three-pointers and grabbed 42 rebounds to the Cardinals’ 36. They won because Samuelson managed to overcome the pain in her back, which kept her out of the AAC Tournament, and be the player who would not let her team lose.
Auriemma was thrilled with Samuelson’s ability to play at the highest level through the pain.
“Yesterday . . . she was just really hurting both physically and mentally,” he said. “I said, ‘she’s either going to have a big night or it’s just going to be terrible.”
“I guess when you have a player that’s done so much like she has in her four years, you expect them to bounce back. I didn’t anticipate – you know, 29 points is 29 points – but the way they came.”
Connecticut also won because some of their role players stepped up. Walker took full advantage of Walz’s decision to double Collier in the post and leave her open. Walz gave her credit for responding as she did.
‘[Samuelson] made some big shots,” he said, “but I’ve got to give credit to Megan Walker. Megan Walker was the difference in the first half.”
“At times you have to roll the dice a little bit. And I thought we did a really good job on Napheesa, but we backed off a little bit on Walker to help on Collier, and she knocked down shots.”
The Albany All-Regional Team:
Napheesa Collier, Connecticut, Most Outstanding Player
Sam Fuehring, Louisville
Asia Durr, Louisville
Crystal Dangerfield, Connecticut
Katie Lou Samuelson, Connecticut