NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Coach Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies remain perfect in every way.
Behind the unstoppable trio of forwards Breanna Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and center Stefanie Dolson, the Huskies routed Notre Dame 79-58 in the women’s NCAA championship game Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena.
In the first title-game matchup between unbeaten teams, Connecticut (40-0) opened the second half with a 16-4 run, breaking open what was a seven-point game at the half.
“There really isn’t much that you can say when you have a performance like that, where your players are really just locked in to what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it,” Auriemma said. “It was just an incredible effort by the entire team, especially these three,” pointing to the three frontcourt stars.
“There’s been a lot of great moments at Connecticut and a lot of great moments in our NCAA history, but especially for our two seniors and the way these guys played, I couldn’t be prouder of a group of players than I am right now.”
Stewart finished with 21 points, and Mosqueda-Lewis added 18. Dolson contributed 17 points and 16 rebounds. Stewart was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and the other two were
named to the all-tournament team along with Notre Dame guards Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd.
The trio crushed Notre Dame inside from start to finish. UConn out-rebounded Notre Dame 54-31 and scored 52 points in the paint to the Fighting Irish’s 31.
“It’s pretty nice, I’ve got to say,” Dolson said when asked about the damage she and her teammates did all evening. “We went in and took advantage of the size that we had against them and right when we realized what an advantage we had, we just kept pushing it at them and we never really backed down.”
Those seniors are Dolson and guard Bria Hartley, who added 13 points and three assists. Hartley’s backcourt mate, Moriah Jefferson, added four points and seven assists.
Hartley spoke to what it meant to go out like this in her last game.
“I think it’s awesome. When I get older and look back on it, I am going to think this is really awesome. I was a part of that. Just kind of leave my footprint on the legacy of UConn,” she said.
Auriemma is now 9-0 in NCAA title contests, breaking a tie with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt for the most women’s basketball titles in NCAA Division I history.
Connecticut led by 14 early and looked to be on the way to an easy win before Notre Dame (37-1) made things interesting toward the end of the first half. However, the Huskies went back to doing what they did early in the first half — pounding the ball inside to the three frontcourt players — and they went up 63-42 before Notre Dame forward Ariel Braker snapped the run by scoring with 9:42 left.
“I thought we were overmatched in the post,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought if we could have made them go to their bench a little bit earlier in the second half, we might have had a chance… that’s where I thought we made our run in the first half. But they didn’t have to go to their bench in the second half.
Those UConn starters barely left the floor, playing a combined 183 minutes on Tuesday. Reserve center Kiah Stokes was also effective in her 13 minutes, scoring four points and pulling down eight boards.
McBride, an All-American, led the Irish with 21 points, and Loyd added 13 points.
For the first 10 minutes, the Huskies shredded Notre Dame, getting any shot they wanted from just about any spot on the floor. Given that the Fighting Irish were playing without injured 6-foot-3 forward Natalie Achonwa, what Connecticut wanted was layups.
Including put-backs, the Huskies got plenty of those layups — eight, to be exact — while sprinting out to a 24-10 lead. Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart each had eight points during that spurt, and Dolson scored the other six.
“I think that we just came out under-matched,” McBride said when asked if having Achonwa might have helped. “I don’t think anything could have changed that. They just came out and went directly into the post, and our help-side (defense) wasn’t there from the get-go, so they got comfortable and got into a rhythm.”
By that time, McGraw had seen enough, and she went to various zones, even including a triangle-and-two. That disrupted the continuity of the Connecticut offense for a bit, but eventually the Huskies started hitting longer shots, including two 3-pointers by Mosqueda-Lewis.
In the meantime, the Irish, sparked by guard Michaela Mabrey’s instant offense off the bench, found a flow of their own. Mabrey hit two 3s, and McBride, who led the Irish with 13 first-half points, hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 29-23 with exactly six minutes left in the half.
The teams mostly traded buckets from there, with the Huskies holding a 45-38 lead at the break behind 14 each from Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart.
The long-brewing frostiness between the two coaches had been on full display in Nashville when McGraw commented that there had been said no “civility” between the coaches. When pressed on whether they hated each other, she had responded, “That’s a fair assumption.”
In defeat, McGraw put on her best face when asked what she said to Auriemma after Tuesday’s game.
“I said something like I thought we were playing the Miami Heat for a while. You guys are just that good. What a great season, things like that. I thought they were just missing LeBron,” McGraw said.
Auriemma, meanwhile, was gracious in victory.
“We beat a great, great, great team tonight… Notre Dame is a great team. For them to have the kind of season they had and for them to lose their starting center, come here and do what they did, I just can’t say enough about their players and their coaching staff, and it took everything we had,” he said.
This marked the eighth time that a national champion has gone undefeated, and the fourth time in six seasons.
With the victory by the Huskies men’s team on Monday in its national title game, UConn has now won the men’s and women’s titles in the same year twice, the other being 2004. No other Division I program has done that even once.
The Irish are the first team to get to the title game undefeated and not win.