UConn women finish 40-0, win record ninth NCAA championship
The Huskies pounded their way to a resounding championship on Tuesday night, earning Geno Auriemma a record ninth NCAA title.
For the second straight night, Storrs, Conn. is the center of the college basketball world.
One night after the UConn men won their fourth national title, Geno Auriemma’s women’s squad battered and bruised their way to a record ninth program championship with a 79-58 victory over Notre Dame, winning the first-ever championship game between two undefeated programs, men or women. Auriemma, whose team finished 40-0, now has one more than legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, and, combining the men and women, UConn improved its mind-numbing record to 13-0 in championship games.
"I'm probably one of the luckiest people in the coaching profession because I get to coach players like Stephanie [Dolson] and Bria [Hartley]," Auriemma said to ESPN, before tearing up. "Yeah, I get to coach guys like that, and that's why we can do what we do. ... To see their faces [as seniors] when they walked off the court, I don't usually get this emotional, but this one got me."
It’s the fifth time the Huskies have won a title with an unblemished record and just the eighth undefeated championship season in women's NCAA history. The last was Baylor, which finished 40-0 in 2012.
Factor in the stakes, the records, the never-forgotten Big East rivalry despite football-driven realignment's best efforts, and Tuesday’s final from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville was described pre-game as “the biggest game in the history of our sport,” by ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, herself a former UConn standout. It probably didn't amount to those heights, but there were enough layers to make it a distinct possibility.
It’s why the storylines -- both UConn teams vying for duel titles for just the second time in NCAA basketball history (UConn did it in 2004), the stewing rivalry between the two preeminent programs in women's college basketball, the barbs traded by the two coaches prior to the game -- made the game so riveting.
Of UConn's double-title feat, F Stephanie Dolson said "it means the world. Shabazz, guys, we went out with a bang."
The stage wasn’t lost on either Auriemma or Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, and both knew Tuesday’s final was a chance to advance the sport, regardless of who won. Perhaps that played into McGraw’s comments suggesting that the rivalry had lost its “civility” and that “hate” would accurately describe the mutual feelings between the two programs. They knew the college basketball world was listening.
Was it partly contrived? Who knows, and honestly, who cares? Do rivalries between Rick Pitino and John Calipari not make the men’s game more interesting? Of course they do. It's part of college basketball, and as for the women's landscape, UConn remains the standard after winning back-to-back championships.
The Irish, who have been in the NCAA final three of the past four years but haven’t won a title since 2001, had no answer for UConn’s frontcourt tandem of Breanna Stewart and Dolson. Stewart, the AP's National Player of the Year, was particulary troublesome for the Irish on both ends of the court. Her length disrupted any penetration from the Irish's stellar backcourt, and her offensive skillset was on full display. The two forwards combined for 38 points and 25 rebounds and 11 assists while Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis poured in 18 to complement UConn's bigs. UConn's rebounding margin was a stunning 54-31, including 22 second-chance rebounds.
When did Dolson feel like the championship was there for the taking?
"Right at the beginning. That opening tap. Our team had such confidence when we came out for this game, we went into it, so excited, so pumped. Everyone said we had a lot of pressure on our back, we went in and were loose, played great, and we knew right at the beginning," Dolson said.
Auriemma said that the Huskies' spacing contributed to such an outpouring of offense.
"We felt like we would be able to score if we just moved the ball around and spread them out," Auriemma told ESPN. "The key to any game is getting off to a good start, particularly this championship game. It just kinda gives you the confidence to keep pushing forward."
The Huskies burst out to a 24-10 lead just 10 minutes into the game, and although Notre Dame worked it back to five, UConn was relentless inside. Their interior passing, coupled with their physicality, made their frontcourt nearly unguardable.
Much of the size disparity was due to the absence of Irish F Natalie Achonwa -- Notre Dame's leading rebounder -- who tore her ACL in the Elite Eight.
All week the rivalry between the programs, the coaches and the players brewed. That's what happens when teams so familiar don't see each other in the regular season for the first time since 1996. In fact, the two teams had met 12 times in the prior three seasons with Notre Dame owning a 7-5 advantage, including winning seven of the last nine. Notre Dame, personifying the attitude of former Irish guard Skylar Diggins, saw no reason to be intimidated by UConn.
There was even a debate as to whether UConn, now of the AAC, had purposely avoided scheduling Notre Dame, of the ACC, during its non-conference portion. Geno denied it. Muffet rebuffed it. The game benefitted.
The result is that the newly-formed AAC now has two NCAA basketball championships, thanks to UConn's reasserted dominance atop the college basketball world.
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