UConn makes quick work of No. 4 Louisville

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STORRS, Conn. — In “we’ve seen this movie before … a lot” fashion, No. 1 UConn took the air out of No. 4 Louisville’s balloon in the first quarter Monday. What was hoped to be a highly competitive game was more a standard UConn display of pouncing with full force from tipoff. The Huskies built a big lead that you knew they’d never give away, even if their play couldn’t stay at quite the same level for 40 minutes.

UConn won 69-58, but the game-within-the game was the first quarter, which the Huskies dominated 24-6. And although Louisville was able to keep the scores of the other three quarters close — even winning the third 18-15 — the end result was the same.

It’s like trailing the leader by 10 shots after the first round of a golf tournament, then coming closer to matching strokes the rest of the way — but still finishing five shots back. It might give you a little confidence, but no trophy.

Admittedly, this nonconference game in mid-February wasn’t for a trophy anyway. But there was a sense of something important on the line: Could Louisville beat UConn for the first time since 1993, and just the second time ever? Could the Cardinals show they are one of the teams capable of derailing the Huskies’ pursuit of a 12th NCAA title?

Louisville didn’t do that Monday, but there’s still time for the Cardinals to improve. Coach Jeff Walz and his team now return to trying to win the ACC; they are 11-1 and tied with Notre Dame for first in the league.

Meanwhile, UConn has yet to lose to an American Athletic foe since the league started in 2013-14, and there’s nothing to suggest it will happen this season. They wrap up the regular season versus No. 22 South Florida on Feb. 26 (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), but Monday’s game was one of the last big national showcases for the Huskies until the NCAA tournament.

And as much as they take pride in trying to play every game as well as possible, the Huskies knew this meeting with the Cardinals was a spotlight. They responded accordingly, especially junior Katie Lou Samuelson.

For the first half, it seemed like Louisville was facing “Lou-ville,” as the chorus of cheers for Samuelson from the sellout crowd of 10,167 at Gampel Pavilion echoed every time she made a shot.

“She’s got it going right now,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “She’s been like that at practice. She was like that this morning. She just had this look when I talked to her that today was going to be a really good day for her. She knew it.”

Samuelson scored 19 of her game-high 26 points in the first half, and maybe the only thing that slowed her down by the fourth quarter was a little fatigue, as she and senior Gabby Williams played all 40 minutes. Samuelson has been battling left ankle issues this season, too, but on Monday, nothing was going to stop her.

“I was really excited to play this game,” Samuelson said. “I made sure I was rested.”

Then she laughed and added, “I actually ate better, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to eat healthier leading up to this game.’ Maybe I should continue to do that, because I felt good throughout the game.

“I knew I was most likely going to have to play a lot of minutes, because this team is tough. I wanted to make sure I was as ready as I could be.”

Williams, meanwhile, lit the fire for UConn with her defense, getting into the passing lanes and frustrating the Cardinals into turnovers that likely wouldn’t be giveaways against most other teams. Williams finished with 12 points, 15 rebounds and six assists.

“We’ve got some players that are pretty tough,” Auriemma said. “Gabby made some plays today that are just impossible to describe. It’s unlike anything a lot of people have seen.

“She and Lou worked really well together. They got a lot done and kept the defense off-balance. We’re always pretty good defensively, but I thought the key would be how well we could execute our offense.”

And no one is better at that now for UConn than Samuelson, who leads the team in scoring at 18.0 and also is an improved passer this season, plus someone who — despite the sore ankle — moves well without the ball. That’s a UConn program staple, but it’s still something each individual star for the Huskies has to master.

“She hit a couple of big-time shots; you tip your hat to her,” Walz said of Samuelson. “She was the one we didn’t do as well of a job on defensively as I would have liked to have done, and she’ll take advantage of you.”

Samuelson is in the conversation for national player of the year, although when asked about that, she seemed genuinely surprised.

“I haven’t thought about that once all year,” she said. “Whatever comes, comes. But this year is about the team and doing what we want to do. Especially the way last year ended.”

Mississippi State, of course, upset UConn in the national semifinals. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 2, and Baylor No. 3. The eye test would suggest those two teams, especially with their combination of inside-outside scoring, could conceivably challenge UConn. But that would have to come in the NCAA tournament.

“We knew this was like a bonus game,” Walz said of facing UConn for the first time since 2014, when they were both in the American. “Even if we’d won tonight … if we don’t take care of business in these next four regular-season conference games, we don’t have a chance to win the league.”

Louisville finishes with three teams that have losing ACC records — Boston College, North Carolina and Pittsburgh — and Virginia, which is still battling to be a top-four seed in the league tournament. Notre Dame has Virginia, Boston College, Virginia Tech and No. 25 NC State. Then it will be a battle for the ACC tournament crown in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Disappointed as he was with the mistakes and missed shots that contributed to the blowout first quarter and a game that then didn’t have the anticipated luster, Walz thinks the Cardinals — led by Asia Durr with 20 points — can find good things from the second half that can carry over.

“I thought we took some shots that were too quick, and that’s something you can’t do,” Walz said. “You’ve got to make an extra pass, you’ve got to make them try to guard you — which, after the first quarter, we did a pretty good job of.

“That’s the one thing about them: They can score. And unfortunately, they scored a bunch in that first quarter and it put us behind the 8-ball.”

And once you’re there against UConn, your odds of getting out are always low.

“For me tonight, with everything we ran it seemed like I was getting open shots,” Samuelson said. “How we executed was really good overall. Our screens were good; everything was to a T.”



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