ALBANY, N.Y. -- It might have been the best thing that happened to UConn's women's basketball this season. The team that never gets to be the underdog could sort of pretend to be one for this women's NCAA tournament because of getting the No. 2 seed. Not that any of us really believed this, of course.
But if the Huskies actually needed any more motivation -- this has long been their time of year, after all -- the so-called slight of that one digit might have been just a little extra push. UConn beat No. 1 seed Louisville 80-73 in the Albany Regional final Sunday, as the Huskies advanced to their 12th consecutive Women's Final Four and 20th overall.
They did so behind an epic performance from senior Katie Lou Samuelson, who has been battling back issues. She led the Huskies' 3-point barrage, making seven of their 14, just one off her season high. She also hit two key free throws with 23.6 seconds left after the Cardinals had cut the lead to 75-73.
Samuelson finished with 29 points and kept alive her chance to play in the NCAA final, something she hasn't gotten to do. UConn lost in the national semifinals the past two years, and she was injured in the 2016 semis and couldn't play in the final.
Fellow senior Napheesa Collier had 12 points, 13 rebounds and six assists Sunday. Collier (2,386 points) and Samuelson (2,322) are third and fifth on UConn's all-time scoring list. Collier is fourth in rebounds (1,206) and Samuelson second in 3-pointers (379). And now they are going to their fourth Final Four.
"This one is pretty special, and this team is pretty special," Samuelson said. "We're excited to get a chance to go back there. We struggled finding out who was going to do what on this team, and we've had a lot of ups and downs. We've had different people step up and have highs and lows. So for us to be playing the way we are right now and have that confidence in each person that gets on the court -- we've worked really hard to get to that point."
Of course, UConn's "highs and lows" are relative; they're still 35-2. But Samuelson's point is they've been pushed more than in some seasons. Sunday was no different.
Louisville did not make it easy, battling until the end. But even though the Cardinals had the No. 1 seed, they go home now. Then again, would things have been any different had UConn been the No. 1 seed?
"I don't remember the last time we've been an underdog," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Can anybody remember that?"
This was the first time since 2006 that UConn wasn't a No. 1 seed. The Huskies lost in the Elite Eight that year to Duke and to LSU in the regional final in 2007. UConn has been to the Final Four every year since, and now will be seeking its 12th national championship. In Tampa, Florida, on Friday, the Huskies will play the winner of Monday's Chicago Regional final between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Stanford.
"I don't know if we're the underdogs, but we're definitely underappreciated," Collier said. "It's still there, the fact that we feel disrespected, but we're so far into this tournament, we can't let anything else distract us."
The Huskies trailed after three quarters in their regional semifinal victory over No. 6 seed UCLA on Friday and needed a Crystal Dangerfield-powered fourth quarter to secure the victory. They were 4-for-15 from 3-point range in that game, and Collier -- who's been a tower of strength for the Huskies all season -- led the way with 25 points.
But UConn didn't need Collier to do quite as much on Sunday because Samuelson looked a lot like her old self. Friday, Samuelson still appeared to be feeling the effects of the back injury that sidelined her for the last game of the regular season and the three games of the American Athletic Conference tournament. Samuelson has been downplaying the effects of the injury, saying at this late in the season most players are dealing with something that hurts. But she clearly wasn't the usual Katie Lou on Friday, going 1 of 6 from the field for six points and missing all three 3-point attempts.
Sunday, the old Katie Lou took the floor. the majority UConn crowd at the Times Union Center roared when Samuelson made her first 3-pointer in the first quarter, and even her poker-faced best pal Collier showed some emotion.
"You just see her toughness," Collier said of Samuelson. "The fact that she is in pain and still playing for us and working as hard as she does, it's just amazing."
The past two seasons, UConn came into the NCAA tournament unbeaten then lost in overtime in the national semifinals, to Mississippi State in 2017 and Notre Dame last year. This year, the Huskies fell twice in the regular season, at Baylor and at Louisville, both No. 1 seeds. That was enough to drop UConn to a No. 2 seed, something the Huskies weren't thrilled about. If anything, though, it fueled them.
Louisville was trying to make its second consecutive Women's Final Four and fourth overall. The Cardinals were attempting to become just the third program to beat UConn twice in a season since 1995, when the Huskies won their first NCAA title. The others to do that are Notre Dame and Rutgers.
Louisville won its regular-season meeting with UConn 78-69 on Jan. 31 at Louisville. But the Cardinals are now 2-18 all-time against UConn.
Louisville's Asia Durr started 0-for-8 from the field, ending 7-of 19 for 21 points, with nine rebounds and five assists. She finishes her college career with 2,485 points, putting her second to Angel McCoughtry on the Cardinals' all-time scoring list. She is expected to be a lottery pick in the WNBA draft on April 10.
But Durr chastised herself for missing two free throws with 20 seconds left and the Cardinals trailing 77-73. Coach Jeff Walz, though, praised Durr's competitiveness and said his team had its chances to win against the powerhouse that has been his nemesis. Louisville also has lost twice to the Huskies in the national championship game, in 2009 and 2013.
Walz credited UConn sophomore Megan Walker, who had 12 of her 13 points in the first half, with being the difference-maker early. Then Samuelson closed the deal for the Huskies.
"She definitely moved a lot better today than she did on Friday, so credit to her," Walz said. "She's a great player. If she plays like this continuing on, they're going to be hard to beat."
UConn had all five starters score in double figures, as Christyn Williams had 16 points and Dangerfield 10. The Huskies outrebounded the Cardinals 43-38, led by 25 combined from Collier and Walker.
It was a hectic finish, but as the final seconds ticked off the clock, Dangerfield jumped into Samuelson's arms, and the senior carried the junior over into a joyful celebratory Huskies huddle. At that point, it didn't look as if Samuelson's back hurt one bit. Probably never felt better.