MEMPHIS-- After his team had been demolished by Louisville by 33 points on a raucous Senior Day just a week ago in the KFC Yum! Center a week, Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie was distraught and disgusted with his players' performance, telling them that if they played that way in the postseason, "We've got two more games and then they can go to spring break."
Well, Florida can wait. After winning back-to-back games against top-25 teams Memphis and Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, the fifth-seeded and No. 21 Huskies (27-6) have a date with co-champion and No. 5 UofL (27-5) in tonight's 6 co'clock championship game in the FedExCenter.
"We're going to come out and play harder," UConn forward DeAndre Daniels said. "We learned from the past, when we played against them. We're right where wanted to be, we wanted to come into this tournament and end up playing them again."
It would take a huge turnaround by the Huskies to deny UofL its third straight conference title, the past two in the Big East. The Cardinals dominated the last meeting, 81-48. They scored 34 points off UConn's season-high 22 turnovers and held the losers to 29 percent shooting, including a dreadful 3-of-22 from 3-point land. The Huskies' two guards, AAC Player of the Year Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, shot a combined 4-of-24.
"Louisville took advantage of everything we did," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "We weren't tough enough. We weren't together enough. I'm glad it came because now we know how tough we have to be to be a champion.
"But we always knew we could play better. Sometimes the darkest hour is when you have to build that bond, and these guys built that bond together. Our mindset has changed. We're not going to let anybody define what we're made of as a team. It's about UConn pride.
"This is the postseason and that first game is behind us. I think we're a better team, and of course, Louisville is a better team. We're going to face out in the ring and see who comes out, but I like my guys and I wouldn't trade 'em for the world. We're going to play solid."
The Cards have ripped through the first two games of the tournament, walloping Rutgers by 61 and Houston by 29. Aside from humiliating UConn in Louisville, they also won 76-64 in Storrs.
In their 58-56 win over top-seeded and No. 11 Cincinnati in Friday's semifinals, Napier led UConn with 15 points, while Daniels had 14 points and nine rebounds and forward Niels Giffey added 11 points. The Huskies hit 7-of-12 treys and survived a last-second layup attempt by Sean Kilpatrick that rolled off the rim at the buzzer.
In UofL's 94-65 rout of Houston in the other semi, Russ Smith erupted for a career-high 42 points on 14-of-22 shooting. Asked about his upcoming matchup against Smith, Napier downplayed the face-off with Smith.
"I'm ready to play Louisville," Napier said. "I don't see no matchup between me and him. I'm not here to play a one-on-one game. It's a five-on-five game, so I'm ready to play Louisville."