STORRS, Conn. -- Yes, the University of Connecticut and Louisville women's basketball teams played three times in 2014 as members of the American Athletic Conference.
But when the AAC Huskies and the Atlantic Coast Conference Cardinals took the floor at Gampel Pavilion Monday night, it had a feel of the old Big East Conference all over it with national championship contenders, national television, and a sellout crowd in the building.
"Does this make me miss the old Big East?" UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, repeating the question that was asked. "I don't want to throw any stones at anybody, but it's ironic that the two best teams in the ACC were teams that used to be in our league. So I'm kind of proud of that, proud that two teams that we had so many great games with ... Some of the games we had with Louisville were classics. And obviously the Notre Dame games were classics. To see them doing what they're doing in that league further illustrates just how good the Big East was."
Top-ranked UConn took a 20-point first-quarter lead and behind All-American Katie Lou Samuelson's 26 points and a double-double by All-American Gabby Williams (12 points, 15 rebounds, six assists) topped No. 4 Louisville 69-58 in the Huskies' final non-league game of the regular season.
It was UConn's 17th consecutive win over the Cardinals since Louisville came here and won a 1993 NCAA tournament first-round contest that also marks the last time the Huskies lost back-to-back games.
Thirteen of those wins came when UConn -- a charter member of the league -- and Louisville, which joined in 2005-06, were Big East rivals. During that span they played for the Big East tournament title twice (2008 and 2009) and the national championship twice (2009 and 2013).
In the final season of the old Big East, three of its teams reached the 2013 NCAA Final Four -- UConn, Louisville, and Notre Dame. There are also those who believe that if a couple of calls had gone South Florida's way in overtime and the Bulls had beaten California in the second round, USF would have taken the path the Golden Bears took to New Orleans and made it a Big East Final Four.
But after the 2013 season, the Catholic 7 -- DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, and Villanova -- formed a new Big East and welcomed Butler, Creighton, and Xavier to it. West Virginia moved to the Big 12. Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh joined the ACC. Louisville and Rutgers spent one year in the AAC before leaving for the ACC and Big Ten respectively.
"You look at all the old teams," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "I had a good conversation with Geno about that. There's nothing we can do, it's women's basketball. You look at what West Virginia is doing in the Big 12, Marquette in the new Big East, there are a bunch of teams that are doing extremely well in the leagues that they're a part of. In the years I was part of the Big East, it was as good of a league as I've ever been a part of."
Louisville and Notre Dame share the ACC lead with four games to go with the Cardinals holding the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament thanks to their 100-67 rout of the Irish on Jan. 11. Syracuse is in the middle of the pack but represented the ACC in the 2016 national championship game against UConn. West Virginia and Rutgers were both ranked in the Associated Press top 25 earlier in the season. DePaul has an edge on Marquette in the new Big East.
UConn (25-0) is 94-0 against AAC opponents since 2013-14 and has a two-game lead on USF with four to go as it seek a fifth straight league regular season title. The Huskies host Temple at the XL Center Sunday, travel to Tulane on Feb. 21 and to SMU on Feb. 24, and entertain USF on Senior Night Feb. 26 to close out the regular season.
For Auriemma and Walz, Monday night was a brief chance to reminisce.
"Do I miss it? Of course, I do," Auriemma said. "I'll bet they (Louisville and Notre Dame) do, too. They may not say it, but I think they do. We had something real special going. It was unlike anything that ever existed before. We miss it.
"And I miss the characters, too. We don't have coaches in our league like Jeff, thank God," Auriemma added with a smile. "Did you see how far he walks down to halfcourt? I looked at him and went, 'Where are you going?' I was complaining about the one kid and he started arguing with me. Like I'm trying to talk to the ref and he's arguing with me. Man, some things never change. We used to do that crap all the time when we were in the same league."
UConn has the No. 1 offense in the country and proved again Monday night it can also play some defense. Maybe that's why the Huskies are the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
UConn entered with the No. 5 scoring defense (53.8) and No. 4 field-goal percentage defense (33.7) and held the Cardinals (25-2) 20 points under their scoring average and eight percent under their shooting average.
"Defense is what wins games," Williams said. "With this team our offense kind of comes naturally. But when we get our defense going it really sparks our offense. It's really discouraging to the other team when we can shut them down. We made everything really difficult for them and played great team defense. It wasn't just about guarding our guy, but helping off, making sure we were rotating and communicating."
Williams had the inside assignment against Louisville forward Myisha Hines-Allen and she was no factor, as she was blanked in the decisive first quarter and had only four points in the first half.
Kia Nurse had the outside assignment against Cardinals' leading scorer Asia Durr, who had 47 points in a win over Ohio State in November and 36 in the rout of Notre Dame last month. Durr did not get on the board until almost midway through the second quarter and while she matched her average of 20 points, the 48-percent shooter was just 7-for-19 from the floor.
Louisville has had its offensive struggles against UConn in the past. But none of these Cardinals had faced the Huskies before and it was a month ago that they scored 100 against Notre Dame at the KFC Yum! Center.
"We expected them to be super tough and it was going to be a really hard defensive challenge for us," Samuelson said. "The way we approached that was the best thing for us. We took that disadvantage of them having two really good scorers and Gabby and Kia played really well and turned it into an advantage for us."
The win was the 37th straight for UConn against ACC opponents since 2007.
"Kia did a great job guarding Asia Durr, but our whole team guarded her," Auriemma said. "Our whole team guarded Hines-Allen, for the most part. That's the only way you can play against great teams like that."
WINING AND DINING WITH GENO
Auriemma is hosting a wine dinner -- "An Evening With Geno and Banfi Family of Wines" -- on Monday, Feb. 19, at Geno's Grille, 9 Dog Lane, Storrs, Connecticut.
A reception will begin at 4 p.m. with a four-course dinner with wine pairings starting at 5 p.m.
Cost is $125 per person. For reservations, call 860-487-9032.
Samuelson became the 25th UConn player to score 1,500 career points Monday night. Nurse is the Huskies' active leader in points (1,542) followed by Samuelson (1,515), Williams (1,446), and Napheesa Collier (1,404). The Huskies have never had four 1,500-point scorers on the same team and only once did they have three (2014 with Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis) ... Williams moved past UConn's first all-Big East first-team selection Peggy Walsh for seventh place on the Huskies' all-time rebound list. She is now at 940. Jamelle Elliott (1,054) is sixth. The six with 1,000 rebounds also scored 1,000 points ... Samuelson's lead in 3-point field-goal percentage nationally lasted two days as she now trails Norfolk State junior Alexys Long 48.4-47.6 percent. Samuelson was 4-for-9 from behind the arc against Louisville. Long was just 4-for-10 in a 72-50 win over Delaware State Monday night, but became eligible for the national leaders (2.0 per game) by making four which gave her 45 treys in 22 games played. Nurse is fourth at 47.3 percent.