Louisville reached their first championship game appearance by knocking off a pair of No. 1 seeds – Maryland 77-60 in the regional finals and Oklahoma 61-59 in the national semifinals. Now, the Cardinals are hoping to knock off the ultimate No. 1 team – unbeaten Connecticut.
The Cardinals are all too familiar with Geno Auriemma's Huskies. Two of Louisville's four losses this season came against UConn – a 93-65 decision on Jan. 26 in Storrs, Conn., and a 75-36 blowout March 10 in the Big East championship game.
Louisville hopes the third time is a charm. If the Cardinals pull off an improbable victory Tuesday night, it might rank as the biggest upset in women's college basketball history.
"We don't want to use it as an excuse, but we did play a double overtime game (against Rutgers), then we went down to the wire with Pittsburgh and we played in front of all their fans at home," Angel McCoughtry said of the last meeting between the two teams in the Big East finale. "And then they were just getting rebound after rebound after rebound. Now we have to take it upon ourselves to really box out and only give them one chance on the offensive end."
Cardinals to a national title in her
final game at Louisville.
The Louisville players understand their underdog role well. They've perceived a lack of respect from national pundits all season and have used it as motivation. The Cardinals vow they'll come ready to play against the Huskies.
"This is a national championship game and it's for everything. So I think we're not looking at what happened in the past two games," Becky Burke said. "Obviously we're pretty familiar with them because they're in our conference. But this is a national championship, it's for everything. You're laying it all on the line. So I think anything can happen."
Louisville vs. UConn. More like David vs. Golliath.
"We were just talking about that before we walked in here," Deserre Byrd said. But, yeah, you can look at it like that. I know many people said Geno never lost a national championship game. But neither has Coach Walz.
"We still want our doubters. They add fuel to our fire. This is the national championship. Anything can happen. And we're going to leave it all out on the floor."
Walz is known for being brutally honest with his players. He's not going to blow smoke about his team's chances against the Huskies. He's knows UConn is a heavy favorite but he also believes his team can win the game.
"Motivation is not tough if you're just honest with players," Walz said. "It's going to be fun tomorrow night. We're going to have to come out and play a great game. There's no question UConn is the best team in the country. There's no doubt. But what we have to do is find a way to play better for 40 minutes. That's it. It doesn't have to be 42, 43. We've got to play a better basketball game for 40 minutes.
"If we can find a way to do that then we win. And that's not going to say that we're a better basketball team if we can figure that way out. It's going to be a challenge for us."
If Louisville expects to have a chance they'll have to figure out how to stop UConn's big three – National Player of the Year forward Maya Moore, junior Tina Charles, perhaps the best center in the nation, and Renee Montgomery, one of the top point guards in the country.
"That's the scary thing about them…they've got three of the top 10 players in the country. Then you've got Tiffany Hayes, who is shooting the ball extremely well," Walz said. "Kalana Greene, I mean, it's just a list of them. We're going to have to come out and we're going to have to try to find a way to make them uncomfortable. How we're going to do that, I haven't quite figured out yet. I've got until 7:30 tomorrow night to try and figure that out."
Louisville has advanced to the championship game because they've controlled tempo and played outstanding defense throughout the NCAA Tournament. They'll need to do those things again against UConn.
"We're going to have to try to control the tempo of the game," Walz said. "We're going to have to make some shots early. The difference is if we come out tomorrow night the same first five minutes the way we played last night, instead of being 11-0 it's 25-0. So I'm aware of that. Our kids know that.
"But at the same time, who expected us to be here? I'm not sure anyone did. Well, actually I know no one did. So we've got nothing to lose and everything to gain, and that's how we're going to approach this game. We're going to come out and lay it on the line for 40 minutes. And we'll be proud of our effort, there's no doubt about that. And hopefully we can play better basketball than they do for 40 minutes."
Regardless of the outcome, iconic All-American forward Angel McCoughtry will play her final game in a Louisville uniform. The best player in school history couldn't think of a better way to end her brilliant career than playing UConn for the national title.
"It's great to play the last game of the college season," said McCoughtry. "My career has been great. I'm blessed. And I have no complaints, win or lose tomorrow. This is what everybody dreams of doing. And to be here is just amazing. And then to play one of the great teams in America, it's great. You wouldn't ask for anything else."
"What she's done for this program you really can't put into words," Walz said. "I think the easiest way to sum everything up is her freshman year I think they averaged about 1,400 fans a game. And by her senior year we were averaging close to about 8,000.
"So that sums up her career in my mind, just the fact that she brought women's basketball in our city to a brand new stage.
"And I think it's going to continue to grow. We're opening up a brand new arena in two years, and our goal is to have 10,000 season ticket holders when that opens. And I really think we have a great chance at that."
Louisville and UConn will tip-off the national championship game at 8:30 on ESPN.