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NCAA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL Cardinals playing up ‘underdog’ role despite being top seed

March 31, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y. — As far as the NCAA Tournament selection committee is concerned, Louisville heads into the Elite Eight as a slight favorite over UConn.

Clearly, Jeff Walz would beg to differ.

“We’re predicted as the first No. 1 seed to get beat by ESPN. Everybody was upset that we got the one seed here,” the Louisville coach said during his Saturday press conference at the Times Union Center. “So, I mean, I would say we are the underdog.”

“We always feel like an underdog,” added forward Sam Fuehring. “I just feel like, I know that UConn was upset that they weren’t No. 1 in the bracket, but we’ll always feel like an underdog.

“I can’t really explain it. I guess it’s because they’ve got five great players on the floor at all times.”

The Cardinals have great players, too, including Naismith Player of the Year finalist Asia Durr, who’s averaging 21.2 points per game. They also have a sparkling 32-3 record and are responsible for one of UConn’s two losses this season. And yet, they insist the Huskies will play as the favorites Sunday (noon).

That got a chuckle out of UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

“I think Jeff is a little too old to be crying that they’re the underdog, you know,” Auriemma said. “We’re on a losing streak with them, you know. I mean, if that’s what they need or if that’s what he needs to get his team to that point, then I’m OK with that.

“I think it’s pretty funny. But, I guess you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get your team ready to go.”

The Huskies, currently 34-2 and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, found their motivation in the selection committee’s decision to place them second in the Albany Regional, behind the ACC runner-up. It’s the first time since 2006 that UConn did not land a No. 1 seed.

Sophomore forward Megan Walker said the Huskies do not view themselves as underdogs against Louisville. Neither do the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, who had UConn as a 2.5-point favorite as of 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

“We know who we are. We know what’s written across our chests,” Walker said. “At the end of the day, that name carries weight. We play different in the postseason. It’s all about us sticking together, executing our stuff and just coming out there and battling.”

The Huskies have achieved unrivaled success in the NCAA Tournament: 11 national championships, 11 consecutive Final Fours and an overall record of 121-19.

“It’s amazing,” Walz said. “Eleven straight Final Fours. You’re not having a bad night. I mean, for those 11 straight, you’ve got … 44 games that you’ve played in the NCAA Tournament, and you really have not had a bad night. That’s pretty darned impressive.”

Auriemma has said that streak’s bound to end at some point. In order to keep it alive, the Huskies realize they’ll need to play considerably better than they did in a 78-69 loss to Louisville on Jan. 31.

“We need to improve on everything,” forward Napheesa Collier said. “We played just not our game at all. And we were watching the film, and we were just like, ‘What are we doing?’ That doesn’t look like us at all, how we’re playing now and how we know that we can play.”

The Cardinals, who are bidding to return to their second straight Final Four and fourth in 12 seasons under Walz, have lost to only two teams — Notre Dame twice and Miami — this season.

The way Auriemma sees it, they’ve done enough to be the favorites.

“We’ve just been the favorite so often. But I think we’re sitting on the wrong bench tomorrow, though, if we’re the favorite,” he joked. “They need to change the benches. And I think we’re wearing the wrong uniforms.”

Fighting through it: Katie Lou Samuelson struggled in a 69-61 victory over UCLA in the Sweet 16, scoring just six points on 1-of-6 shooting.

The All-American guard didn’t delve into many details when asked Saturday about the status of her injured back.

“At this point in the season, it’s all mind over matter,” the senior said. “There’s people all over the country that are playing still that have injuries and have things that are bothering them. Stuff that’s going on with me, I’m not letting it affect me. I’m doing whatever I can to feel my best, but mentally if I feel good, then that’s good enough.”

Samuelson, UConn’s second-leading scorer at 18.3 points per game, originally hurt her back when she collided with another player while diving for a loose ball in a victory over Houston on March 2. She sat four games, including all three in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, then returned to score 11 points in a first-round victory over No. 15 Towson.

“At this point in the season, everybody’s got something,” guard Crystal Dangerfield said. “But hers was at a very bad time, obviously. It was a bit more serious than we knew. She’s doing as much as she can to be 100 percent, or close to it. It’s definitely frustrating; you can see it on her face.”

Collier has been inspired by Samuelson’s toughness.

“The fact that she is in pain and she’s still playing for us and working as hard as she does, it’s just amazing,” Collier said.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour