HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) UConn and Louisville have played each other for national titles and conference championships.
On Monday, the nation’s No.1 and No. 4 teams will renew their rivalry for the first time in four years, but this time with nothing more at stake than rankings, and a gauge of where each team stands in advance of the postseason.
”This is a bonus game,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz. ”It’s a non-conference game in the middle of the season…The players are excited about it, but we’re trying to win our first ACC regular season championship, and that’s what we’re talking about.”
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UConn coach Geno Auriemma agrees that a loss won’t have either team conceding the national title to the other. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a big game.
It will be the last real regular-season test for the top-ranked Huskies (24-0), who come into the matchup with a 75-game home winning streak. UConn is 8-0 this season against ranked opponents. But most of those wins came back in November and December. Auriemma is anxious to see how his team handles the Cardinals one-two punch of Asia Durr (19.8 points per game) , and Myisha Hines Allen (14).
”I don’t know that we’ve played anybody as good as Louisville is right now,” Auriemma said. ”They are as good as any two players in the country. I don’t know that we’ve faced that, so this will be a different kind of challenge.”
Louisville (25-1) has already beaten top-five opponents Ohio State and Notre Dame. But it hasn’t seen a team with the talent depth of UConn, which starts three pre-season All-Americans and has five players on the 33-member watch list for the Wade trophy.
”We played well enough, I think, throughout the season to be able to go up there and compete,” said Walz. ”And if you don’t go up there with the idea to win, there’s no sense to go. So, I can promise you, we’re going to go up there with a lot of respect for their program and what they’ve done, but you can’t fear them.”
Auriemma said he’s interested to see what twists the Cardinals have in their game plan. Walz once had his squad head the wrong way to start the second half in the hopes the Huskies would leave the real basket unguarded. The plan (which later worked against another opponent) only failed only when the official inexplicably stopped the action to send the Cardinals in the other direction.
”They’ll come up with something, I’m sure they will,” Auriemma said.
Walz and Auriemma are old friends and have a lot of respect for each other. That of course leads to questions about why they haven’t played each other since the Cardinals headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
”He’s a master at scheduling,” Auriemma joked. ”We’ve been trying to get them for four years. Once he called the provosts office and made sure that (All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson) had graduated, we couldn’t get him off the phone.”
The game is expected to have a tournament atmosphere. It will be played on campus in the 10,000-seat Gampel Pavilion, which is sold out.
Louisville forward Sam Fuehring said the Cardinals are excited about the challenge.
”When we started playing games, it was like, `Dang, we’re good. Like we can keep up with most of the teams in the country,”’ she said. ”So, it’s just building up our confidence that we’re going to play well. We can play with them. They’re the best and we can play with them.”
It has been a one-sided rivalry. UConn is 16-1 against the Cardinals and 8-0 when playing them as a No. 1 team. The Huskies won by 20 points in their last meeting in 2014.
”We know they want to beat us real bad,” said UConn forward Gabby Williams. ”They are going to come after us. So, how we respond will be a really good test for us.”
AP Freelancer Steve Bittenbender contributed to this story from Louisville, Ky.