By John Altavilla, Hartford Courant
STORRS – No, this wasn’t Notre Dame. But that’s only because this Louisville series barely had time to marinate before realignment pulled it out of the brine by sending the Cardinals to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
But in terms of now, in this somewhat underwhelming first season of competition in The American, it may not get any better than what the sellout at Gampel Pavilion saw on Sunday.
In a game between conference unbeatens, No. 1 UConn maintained its perch with a 81-64 win. The Huskies have now dismantled eight Top 25 teams this season.
The loss ended No. 4 Louisville’s 16-game winning streak (23-2, 11-1), dating to its only previous loss at Kentucky on Dec. 1. The win was the 31st straight for UConn (25-0, 12-0) the fifth longest in program record, but still light years from the standard (90).
The Huskies, who never trailed, had five players in double-figures for the second straight game. But they were led by another seminal performance by sophomore Breanna Stewart.
Stewart was as smooth as she was sensational, scoring 24 points with 10 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the season.
She was ably accompanied by the other four starters: Moriah Jefferson, swift as always, scored 18 points. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 13. And Bria Hartley (12 points, seven rebounds) and Stefanie Dolson (12 points, nine rebounds) were right behind.
Asia Taylor led the Cardinals with 18 points. Sara Hammond added 11. But senior guard Shoni Schimmel, the Cardinals leading scorer, was held to nine (4 of 15).
But the last thing UConn can afford this season happened did with 18.7 seconds to play in the first half.
Mosqueda-Lewis, who missed eight games earlier this season with nerve compression in her right elbow, suffered a left elbow contusion in another collision under the same basket she was hurt on Nov. 11 against Stanford.
On the tail end of a give-and-go, after already scoring 13 points, she slammed to the floor on contact falling awkwardly on her left arm. She immediately grabbed her elbow and after a few moments was helped off the floor.
Mosqueda-Lewis, an All-American last season, was just coming into her own again. Sunday was her fourth straight game in double-figure points. And her loss left the Huskies with just six scholarship players – temporarily.
Kiah Stokes started the second half in Mosqueda-Lewis’ spot. But with 13:56 to play, her left elbow wrapped and braced, she returned to the game. She gave it her best, even took a shot. But she did not score another point.
And almost on queue, the Huskies began to expand their lead. They made seven straight field goals, including threes from Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Hartley, to take a 64-45 lead with 11:38 to play.
With a few notable exceptions, this essentially was a rematch of last year’s national championship game in New Orleans, one the Huskies won with great ease. But there were some major differences
Louisville was without junior guard Bria Smith, one of their focal points, and junior forward Shawnta’ Dyer. The Huskies were again without Morgan Tuck and Brianna Banks.
But what remained for both teams was formidable; a sneak peak at what should be the bulk of The American’s first all-star team.
And the game equaled its billing; intensely played and contested until UConn’s big second-half push.
The Huskies led 44-33 at the end of the first half, led by Stewart’s 16 points. After taking an initial 19-9 lead, the Cardinals went on a run to cut the lead to 21-18 on a three by Antonita Slaughter.
Still, there was more to it than the scoreboard. Walz was into it from the start, contesting calls with both the game officials and Barbara Jacobs, the head of The American’s officials, who was sitting five feet to his right on press row.
His commentary built in intensity until he was called for a technical. Mosqueda-Lewis’ two free throws gave UConn a 44-29 lead.