By Carl Adamec
NEW ORLEANS — Kelly Faris’ career with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is ending when and where she wants it to.
Whether it ends how she wants it to will be determined Tuesday night when the Huskies take on Louisville for the national championship at New Orleans Arena.
“We’ve had our ups and downs and we’ve had to work really hard to get to the point we’re at,” Faris said. “I want this as bad as anyone on this team and I know we want it for each other more than anything.”
Faris has never missed a contest at UConn and her 154th consecutive game will match the school record shared by Maya Moore and Tiffany Hayes. Only NCAA record holder Kalana Greene (157) will have played in more games with the Huskies than Faris.
In her last eight years of competitive basketball, four at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis and four at UConn, Faris has not played in the final game of the season just twice. The Huskies lost to Notre Dame in the 2011 and 2012 Final Four semifinals. But UConn avenged three earlier losses to the Irish this season with its convincing 83-65 victory Sunday night to earn a shot at the program’s eighth NCAA title which would tie Tennessee’s all-time record.
After the loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament final, only the third postseason loss for Faris in the eight years, UConn coach Geno Auriemma told her he would do everything in his power for her career to end the right way.
“I have all the trust in the world in him and I knew he meant it when he said that to me,” Faris said. “I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it right now because I know not only me but every single person in that room had 100 percent believe in him that he would. He got us here and the coaches got us here to this point, and now it is up to us as players to finish it off. This is our last chance to make him proud and make everyone else proud.”
UConn (34-4) has handed four of its five NCAA tournament opponents its worst loss of the season and the only reason Kentucky isn’t included on that list is that the Wildcats used full-court pressure with a number of their starters down the stretch against the Huskies’ bench.
They have been a different team the past month. Then again, so has Louisville.
The Cardinals (29-8) were just 3-3 in their final six regular season games and were then hammered by Notre Dame 83-59 in the Big East tournament semifinals. But after some early first-round struggles with Middle Tennessee, they beat Purdue and then pulled the upset heard ’round the country when they ousted No. 1 and defending national champion Baylor in the Sweet 16. Two days later they knocked off Tennessee and on Sunday reached their second national final by rallying from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat California 64-57.
“We’re not done with what we’ve come out here to do and that is to win the national championship,” Louisville guard Shoni Schimmel said. “And we’re ready for anything. For it to be the national championship game, why not go out with a bang?”
Schimmel was the Oklahoma City Regional Most Outstanding Player. Forward Sara Hammond is a strong inside presence while Bria Smith is tough to defend on the wing. But perhaps the breakout player of the tourney for the Cardinals is junior guard Antonita Slaughter, who knocked down seven of Louisville’s 16 3-point baskets in the 82-81 win over Baylor. She hit six more treys against California Sunday.
But Baylor, Tennessee, and California weren’t familiar with what the Cardinals do. UConn, as a fellow Big East member, is.
“We’ve played Louisville and we’ve beaten them but you can’t take it for granted,” UConn guard Bria Hartley said. “Notre Dame beat us the last three times. We’re going to have to play a great game Tuesday night.”
The Huskies defeated the Cardinals 72-58 in the teams’ regular season meeting at the XL Center in Hartford on Jan. 15. Louisville is 0-12 against UConn since it joined the Big East for the 2005-06 season.
But the teams are different.
“We’re playing better basketball,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “Our kids are confident. There’s really not much more to say. We believe in what we’re doing. No one thought we could beat Baylor. No one thought we’d come back a day after that and beat Tennessee. I know people picked us against Cal but that was because they figured we had beaten Baylor and Tennessee and if we don’t pick them to win we’ll look bad.
“I’m not sure everybody really believed we would win that game and I got a pretty good idea they aren’t picking us (Tuesday) night. We’re just going to come out here and play. That’s what we’ve done and we’re having fun doing it.”
The Huskies have taken the same approach and it has worked just as well for them. And no one is having more fun than Breanna Stewart.
The freshman forward paced four players in double figures with a career high 29 points in the win over Notre Dame to continue her remarkable postseason. She did not play in the Jan. 15 game against Louisville due to an ankle injury.
“Our goal was to get to the national championship game and win it,” Stewart said. “For your teammates to be relying on you, that’s what you want as a player. But with this team we have so many people who are able to contribute that it’s hard to focus on one player.”
UConn is expected to stay with its starting lineup of Faris, Stewart, All-Americans Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stefanie Dolson, and Caroline Doty, with Hartley the first off the bench. Look for Stewart’s classmates, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson, to get a big opportunity.
“Our bench has gotten longer in the last month and we want to take advantage of it,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes with freshmen you don’t know what you’re going to get in this environment but they were really, really good against Notre Dame. They’re fearless. They play with a lot of courage.”
UConn is 7-0 in national championship games. And it will be the final game for seniors Faris, Doty, and Heather Buck. Doty and Buck are hoping for their third championship ring and Faris her second.
They’re 40 minutes away.