Louisville, which advanced to the championship game with a dramatic, 83-77, overtime win over fourth-rated Notre Dame Friday night, beat the Huskies twice during the regular-season – 79-78 in double-overtime Jan. 29 in Storrs; and 71-58 Feb. 18 in Louisville.
Connecticut advanced to the finals with a, 76-71, overtime win over Syracuse in Friday's semifinal matchup. The Huskies will play their fifth game in as many days when they take on Rick Pitino's team Saturday night. The Cardinals, who received a double-bye, advanced to the title game by beating Marquette and the Irish.
The championship game pits two of the league's top programs. UConn is aiming for their seventh Big East Tournament title, while Louisville, joining the league in 2005, seeks their second conference crown in the last three years. UConn last won the Big East Championship in 2004; Louisville beat Syracuse two years ago for the title.Louisville and UConn weren't supposed to be playing for the Big East title. The Cardinals, with five new starters, were picked eighth in the Big East preseason coaches poll; UConn, replacing several key players, was picked even lower at 10th.
"We're excited about it, we look forward to the challenge and we're really, really excited about the potential of winning a Big East championship with the league being this tough," Pitino said.
So here the Cardinals and Huskies are just one win away from the Big East title.
Louisville has exceeded expectations with a balanced attack led by senior guard – and leading scorer – Preston Knowles, and emerging stars Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric. The Huskies have surprised because of star guard Kemba Walker, perhaps the nation's best player, and talented freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier.
Walker has been sensational in the Big East Tournament, scoring 111 points in four games – a championship-record. He scored 33 points in UConn's semifinal win over Syracuse and hit the game-winning shot in Thursday's quarterfinal against Pittsburgh.
Louisville, though, was able to slow down the high-scoring guard in the first two games this season. Walker scored 20 points in Louisville's two-overtime victory, but made only 7 of 23 shots, including just 2-10 three-pointers. In the second game, Walker made only 3-10 shots and finished with 16 points.
Slowing Walker down a third time will be Louisville's biggest key in the championship.
"We've played them twice so we know him very well, we know the Connecticut team very well," Pitino said. "I think the mistake we've often made is trying to stop one key guy and.. other people beat you. He's smart enough to do that. Kemba does a great job, and their freshmen are terrific. We know what we have to do to win and we will have to be ready."
Though Louisville's road to the championship game hasn't been as demanding as UConn's, the Cardinals had to exert plenty of resources to overcome a 14-point halftime deficit in their semifinal win over the Irish. Starting forward Kyle Kuric played all 45 minutes, while Knowles and Chris Smith each played more than 30.
"Preston was absolutely dead," Pitino said. "He had nothing left, he was out of gas, he couldn't breathe, and he came through at the end and made big time shots and played great defense."
Knowles, Louisville's top scorer, logged double duty against the Irish after point guard Peyton Siva fouled out late in regulation. Knowles filled in admirably for Louisville's starting point guard, scoring 10 of his 20 points in the final minutes of regulation and overtime.
"I'm happy that about a month ago we started playing Preston at the point because it paid huge dividends," said Pitino.
Now, Louisville and UConn have to dig deep for another 40 minutes Saturday night. The Big East championship is riding on the line.
"It's going to be a hell of a game," Pitino said.