It was billed as Louisville's chance to finish the unfinished business of last season's national championship game.
It was billed by ESPN as the biggest women's basketball game in the country.
It was billed as UConn's best chance for a loss in the regular season.
But try as they might, the No. 3 Cardinals just couldn't stack up as No. 1 UConn handled the rowdy crowd like a routine business trip to Louisville Monday night.
And things started off so well for the Cardinals. UofL blasted out of the gate with a 7-0 run as the record crowd in the KFC Yum! Center roared. UConn's first bucket, a three by Keleena Mosqueda-Lewis, quieted the crowd for a moment and sparked the Huskies' first counter punch, a 7-2 run that cut Louisville's lead to a basket.
After a driving layup by Shoni Schimmel, the teams traded threes. Louisville took a 16-10 lead on the next possession, but UConn answered with a 6-0 run. The teams then traded baskets until UConn took advantage of three straight missed shots by Louisville to push ahead 27-22 with 9:44 left in the first half.
"I think we can take a lot of positives from this game, especially at the beginning when we started 9 of 12," junior forward Sara Hammond said. "But then we saw what can happen if we make mistakes. They take advantage of every mistake."
After Schimmel hit her first two shots, UConn's defense clamped down on her and she struggled even when she had an open look, missing 10 straight shots.
"They guarded her," UofL coach Jeff Walz said. "Moriah Jefferson does a great job. She's there on the catch. She's trying to sit there and get up after (Shoni). I thought Shoni got some good looks, especially in the first half. They went zone, we ran a play for (Shoni), and she got a great look that she normally knocks down."
With Schimmel out of sorts, Louisville's offense continued to stall as UConn pushed its lead to 32-22. Louisville fought back, cutting the margin to 32-25 by the six-minute mark and to 34-28 two possessions later. The Huskies responded with a 7-0 run to to make it 41-28, and they led by as many as 14 just before the end of the half.
"We got some really good looks," Walz said. "The problem is you have to play pretty much, not a perfect game, but real close on the defensive end of the floor. And that's what killed us. We did a great job the first 10 minutes at the offensive end, but then we just had absolute breakdowns. Even though we kept scoring, they're hitting threes by their best three-point shooter that are wide open. We lost them in transition, and even though we're up four at times and up six, we could have been up 12.
"But we just kept trading baskets with them, and you can't do that. They're too good of an offensive team, and that's something we talked about this week was that you've got to make them make contested shots. And unfortunately there in the first 10 minutes we gave them a lot of uncontested shots that they made."
Louisville trailed 43-31 at the half as UConn dominated the rebounding 27-14. UConn had 12 second-chance points at the half.
"I think we gave up 19 offensive rebounds," Walz said. "We're down 12 at the half and they had 12 second-chance points at the half. I think we ended up giving them 15 second-chance points. So in the second half they got some offensive rebounds but did not convert. If you're going to give them up, you can't allow them to score. We got some really good stops and then just could not come up with a rebound.... When a shot goes up, you've got to put a body on somebody, everybody does, because they team-rebound at the offensive end."
UConn built its 12-point first-half lead despite star forward Breanna Stewart struggling to a 2-for-9 shooting performance in the half. After scoring just seven points in the half, Stewart came alive in the second half, finishing with 22 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and two steals in 38 minutes.
"She makes that jumper on the baseline, I don't know how anyone can defend that shot," Walz said of the 6-4 Stewart. "And then that hook shot in the paint? We knew coming into this that she was going to make some shots like that, but we just have to make sure we are contesting every shot."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he sometimes marvels at Stewart's ability. "The thing that I think makes Stewy the best player in the nation is she is impossible to guard," he said. "No big kid her size can move like her, and when she is moving she is going to end up in the lane and outside where no guard can guard her. When she's standing in one spot, then she becomes easy to guard. Once we got her moving, then Stewy did what she does. She couldn't have done this last year -- what she did today. She couldn't handle the physicality of this game today. She grown up a lot.... She does things on the basketball court that very few kids can actually do, and if you look at her numbers and how she has played against ranked teams, she is amazing."
The Cardinals cut Connecticut's lead to 45-35 by the 15-minute mark, but a 4-0 UConn run ended UofL's spurt. UConn continued to lead by double-digits, extending its lead to 61-42 by the 5-minute mark.
The Huskies closed out a 20-point win and ended Louisville's hope of sharing the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. Along with Stewart's 22 and 14, Mosqueda-Lewis had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Bria Hartley had 14 points and Jefferson scored 11. Louisville was led by 16 points from Tia Gibbs and 12 by Hammond.
With the 68-48 loss, Louisville fell to 28-3 on the season, which set a school record for the best regular-season finish in school history. In 2008-09 the Cardinals finished the regular season with a 27-3 record.
No. 1 OR NO?
UConn is definitely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and so is No. 2 Notre Dame, also undefeated at 30-0. But which two teams will snag the other No. 1 spots? Auriemma thinks it should be Louisville.
"I think they're a No. 1 seed," he said. "They've done everything they were supposed to do; they don't have any bad losses. Usually, that's what hurts you in the NCAA Tournament; if you have a bad loss or two or three, then you're in trouble. They don't have any bad losses. It's not like they just got good this year and they don't have the respect that someone else would have, for the last four or five years they've been in two Final Fours and played in two national championship games, so by any measure, there's a reason you gave them the bid. You know they're going to fill up the building and play great and be a top seed' so now reward them because they've earned it. That's not to say that there isn't anyone else who deserves a No. 1 seed, but I don't know anyone who deserves it more than they do."
Walz said he hoped the committee doesn't put UConn and Louisville in the same bracket because the Cardinals are hosting an NCAA Regional this season.
"I'm not so concerned about the No. 1 seed," Walz said. "We are going to have to do our job and get to the conference championship and hopefully beat them. It's going to come down to whatever the NCAA decides. As coaches, years ago, we were the ones who voted on the geography over the true seeding in the NCAA Tournament.... If you are trying to make it a true NCAA Tournament feel and a true bracket, which is what I'm hoping our game can get to, because that's what it should be. I still think we're fighting for a No. 1 seed, but if we don't I think we're an awfully high 2. Would UConn come here? I don't know. If the NCAA sticks to what it's done in the past, then there's a good chance that they'll come here. If we have to play them a fourth time to go to the Final Four, then I'd rather play them here."
For his part, Auriemma said that if the committee puts Louisville and UConn in the same bracket, "They've been spending too much time over here at the Bourbon Bar."
Louisville set the record for the largest single-game attendance in program history, with 22,163 packing the KFC Yum! Center.
"It was great. The fans were great," Walz said. "I really appreciate everyone that came out today. Unfortunately, we didn't put together a 40-minute game, and that's what you have to do with this team."
The attendance ranks as the second-largest crowd to watch an NCAA Division I women's basketball game this season, behind the 23,706 to watch Kentucky host Duke on Dec. 22. Since the 2010-11 season, there have been only four women's basketball games with a crowd of 20,000-plus. Three of those have been in Louisville -- Nov. 12, 2010: Louisville vs. Tennessee; Dec. 5, 2010: Louisville vs. Kentucky; and March 3, 2014: Louisville vs. UConn. The other one was the Kentucky vs. Duke game.