Albany, N.Y. — This was the game that fans had been hoping for in the Albany Regional portion of the NCAA Tournament since the brackets were announced. No. 2 seed UConn versus No. 1 seed Louisville. Geno Auriemma and Jeff Walz. Napheesa Collier and Asia Durr.
But it was senior Katie Lou Samuelson’s time to shine bright. And she did, as the senior propelled the Huskies to a 80-73 victory over Louisville.
“Coming into this game, we all felt like there was a little bit of unfinished business from the last game,” Samuelson, who scored a game-high 29 points, said. “There was a little bit of extra motivation, and we wanted to give ourselves a chance to get to the Final Four. So with that, with that much focus and that many things all coming at you, it’s easy to just play, just go out there and play as hard as you can, play with everything you have in you. It was easy to not focus on anything but the game at hand.”
With time winding down in the fourth quarter, Samuelson spotted up from 3-point range, reached back and released a dagger to the heart of Louisville to put UConn up 72-63.
And she was fouled by Sam Fuehring on the play. All 9,204 fans were on their feet and screaming their lungs out.
The enormous UConn crowd sang in unison, “LOUUUUUU,” as her teammates swarmed her like a bee on honey.
But it wasn’t all just about Samuelson.
Crystal Dangerfield had the insurmountable task of shouting down Asia Durr, who is expected to be selected as a top pick in the WNBA Draft.
Durr’s first bucket of the game, came at the 9:23 mark in the second quarter, after starting 0-for-8 from the field. UConn decided that Dangerfield had to limit her as they would not double team her because of her innate ability to find open looks for her teammates.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said the difference in the game, when they lost to Louisville on Jan. 31, was the fact that they knocked down 11 3-pointers.
“We had made a decision, we weren’t going to (double team),” Auriemma said. “We said we are not going to double. We are going to let Asia get what she gets and just make her work as hard as possible to get those (shots). We just decided we cannot live with 11 made 3s like we did last time.”
Dangerfield finished the game 4-for-8 from the field, scoring 10 points. But she said her focus was on defense before, during and after the game.
“I felt like my matchup with Durr was going to tell the story of this game,” Dangerfield said. “And it kind of did in the second half. But the first half, we just made things hard, tough for her and hopefully got her frustrated.”
Durr was not going to let her career at Louisville end without a fight. With her team down eight, she knocked down a step-back jumper to bring her team within six at the 6:11 mark in the fourth quarter.
On the Cardinal’s next possession, Durr made her way in between three Huskies to knock down another jumper in the lane. This brought the game to 64-61.
Durr was officially percolating.
With under 30 seconds remaining in the game, Carter hit a layup to make it 75-73. Auriemma and the Huskies called a timeout to regroup.
Samuelson inbounded the ball to Walker on the next possession, who passed it back to Samuelson. The senior was fouled and knocked down both of her free throws to make it a four-point game.
On the next ensuing possession, Durr was fouled by Collier with 20 seconds left in the game. All eyes were on the star point guard, but she came up short on both free throw attempts. This all but ending their comeback attempt.
“We fought back hard,” Durr said. “We created some nice turnovers, Dana (Evans) got a steal, (Arica Carter) got a steal. We came back and scored both times. But I went to the line and missed two big free throws. I mean, we fought hard, and that’s what shows — I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. That’s what makes us us. We don’t stop fighting. It really doesn’t matter how much we’re down by.”
Collier was able to snag the rebound after Fuehring missed the put-back attempt on Durr’s missed free throw. Collier made both attempts to put the game at 79-73.
Although Collier iced the game with two free throws and led the team with 13 rebounds, she didn’t not score the basketball like she has for most of the season.
Collier scored her lowest point total, 13, since Feb. 24 when she scored 12 against Tulsa. The senior said she couldn’t care less about her scoring total.
“I really don’t care how many points I score as long as we win,” Collier said. “That is the only thing that matters. My team stepped up 100 percent and did everything that I was slacking on. I’m so proud of them and thankful that they did what they did.”
Samuelson said she cannot wait for the opportunity to play in her last Final Four with a UConn jersey on.
“I think this team has done a lot behind closed doors to get to this point, and we’ve been through so much ups and downs, trying to figure out how to work with certain people,” Samuelson said. “You know, sometimes we have a lot of mismatches and things like that. So this team has really fought our way to get to this point.
“We experienced a lot of ups and downs this year playing-wise, close games and close losses. And for us, to get to this point to win and to win the way we have and the way we’re playing right now as a team, we’re just so happy with where we are, and it’s just special. This team is special.”
Michael Logan is the Sports Editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.