NASHVILLE—With all the pregame bluster from two undefeated teams generating a buzz that Tuesday night’s NCAA women’s basketball final could be one of the most compelling in the sport’s history, Connecticut instead turned the outcome into a rout by punishing Notre Dame for a 79-58 victory and a record ninth national championship.
In front of 17,519 at Bridgestone Arena, the Huskies concluded their fifth perfect season by making sure Coach Geno Auriemma remained unbeaten in national championship games. Connecticut broke a tie with Tennessee for all-time titles in the same state where legendary former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt built her dynasty.
“There really isn’t much you can say when you have a performance like that,” Auriemma said. “The players were just really locked in to what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. It was just an incredible effort by the entire team.”
A day after its men beat Kentucky in the NCAA tournament final, Connecticut (40-0) won its second consecutive national championship and fourth in six seasons thanks in part to supremacy inside and crisp ball movement that yielded 25 assists on 34 field goals. The Huskies also limited Notre Dame to 35 percent shooting, including 26 in the second half when they used an 18-4 surge to pull away for good.
National player of the year Breanna Stewart matched a game high with 21 points for Connecticut, which owned a 52-22 margin in points in the paint and a 54-31 advantage in rebounding. The Huskies, who collected 13 more offensive rebounds than Notre Dame, got 17 points, a game-high 16 rebounds and seven assists from senior center Stefanie Dolson and 18 points from junior guard-forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
“To be able to have two national championships under my belt, it means a lot,” said Stewart, a sophomore who was named Final Four most outstanding player for a second straight year. “Each team has been different, and I’m happy that we could send Stef and [senior Bria Hartley] out” with the national title.
Senior all-American guard Kayla McBride scored 21 for the Fighting Irish in their third loss in an NCAA final in four years. Notre Dame (37-1) has made four straight appearances in the Final Four, but its only national championship came in 2001.
The Huskies struck first by repeatedly going inside, where Notre Dame was without starting forward Natalie Achonwa. The senior tore her ACL in the region final, and Connecticut made sure to get frequent touches for its front-court players, who held a considerable size advantage.
The strategy yielded a 22-8 lead via a 14-0 run on six layups among the Huskies’ seven field goals over that stretch. It began with Stewart’s layup that tied it, and Dolson followed with another layup that put Connecticut ahead to stay.
“Right from the beginning of the game we took advantage of the size we had against them,” Dolson said. “Right when we realized what an advantage we had, we just kept pushing it at them, and we never really backed down.”
The Huskies got four more layups consecutively, and when Mosqueda-Lewis scored off the glass, the lead had grown to 20-8. Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw called a timeout with 11 minutes 30 seconds left until the break, but Stewart added another layup after collecting a pass from Moriah Jefferson.
Three of Notre Dame’s final four field goals of the half were three-pointers, including back-to-back makes by sophomore guard Jewell Loyd (13 points, 4-for-15 shooting), prompting Auriemma to turn to his bench and holler, “It’s unbelievable how bad we are sometimes.” But the Huskies had the final say going into the locker room when Mosqueda-Lewis gathered the rebound off Dolson’s missed long jumper and put it back for a 45-38 lead.
Intrigue to the game grew considerably when the coaches exchanged barbs the afternoon before tip-off. It began with McGraw’s reply to a question about what it would take to bring back the civility in the rivalry between teams that met regularly when both were in the Big East Conference.
“I think we’re past that point,” she said.
Auriemma countered with some pointed remarks of his own, but the coaches did shake hands and spoke briefly moments after the game ended. When asked what was discussed during that conversation, McGraw said she told Auriemma, “I thought we were playing the Miami Heat for a while. You were that good.”
“There’s been a lot of great moments at Connecticut and a lot of great moments in our NCAA history,” Auriemma said, “but especially for our two seniors, the way these guys played, I couldn’t be prouder of the players than I am right now.”