NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Geno Auriemma and Connecticut stand alone in women’s college basketball, and they reached the top in unprecedented fashion.
The Huskies routed Notre Dame 79-58 in the first championship game featuring undefeated teams, winning their record ninth national title. Auriemma broke a tie with Pat Summitt and Tennessee for most all-time, doing it in her backyard.
Breanna Stewart, who was The Associated Press Player of the Year, scored 21 points to lead the Huskies (40-0) while Stefanie Dolson added 17 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists. Auriemma took out his senior center with a minute left and the game well in hand with the pair embracing in a long hug.
“We beat a great, great team,” Auriemma said. “Notre Dame is a great team. For them to have the season they had and lose their starting center and to do what they did, I can’t say enough about their players, coaching staff and it took everything we have. I knew if we played great we’d have a chance to win.”
The victory also meant that UConn is now the center of the college basketball world with both the men’s and women’s teams winning the championship in the same year again. The men’s team beat Kentucky in the title game Monday night. This pair of victories came a decade after the Huskies became the only school to accomplish the feat.
“I couldn’t be prouder of what the men did last night,” Auriemma said.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw congratulated the UConn coach when they shook hands after the 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, you know things like that,” McGraw said. “I thought … LeBron was the only thing they were missing.”
While the names change at UConn, from Rebecca Lobo to Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and now Stewart, Auriemma has been the constant, winning nine titles in only 20 seasons — including the last two. He’s never lost in a national championship game.
“Congratulations to the UConn Huskies for winning the 2014 NCAA National Championship!,” Summitt said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “My compliments also to coach Geno Auriemma for winning his ninth national title. He has accomplished this feat in record time.”
It was the fifth unbeaten season for Auriemma and UConn and the first time the Huskies went 40-0 — matching Baylor as the only schools to accomplish that feat. The victory was also Connecticut’s 46th straight dating back to last season’s NCAA tournament title run. It’s the third longest streak in school history — well short of the NCAA record 90 straight they won.
The loss was Notre Dame’s third in the title game in the past four years. Kayla McBride finished off her stellar career with 21 points to lead the Irish, who were looking for their first championship since 2001.
After proving to be no challenge for the Huskies during the first 15 years of the rivalry which began in 1995, Notre Dame had owned the series lately, winning seven of the previous nine meetings. UConn though has won the last two, eliminating Notre Dame in the Final Four last season before topping them in the championship game this year.
The two former Big East rivals, who have no love lost for each other, put on a show in a game that women’s basketball hoped could transcend the sport. The coaches added to the drama of the game with their verbal sparring on Monday. But it was Auriemma who got the last word again.
Even with the loss, it was a spectacular season for the Irish. Notre Dame lost Skylar Diggins to graduation and changed conferences to the ACC. Neither mattered as they ran through their opponents, winning by an average of 25.6 points while taking both the conference regular season and tournament championships.
The Irish lost senior Natalie Achonwa to a torn ACL in the regional final win over Baylor. Notre Dame wore warmup shirts with Achonwa’s nickname “Ace” below her No. 11.
The team played inspired basketball in the Final Four win over Maryland where Notre Dame outrebounded the Terps by a record margin. The Irish couldn’t muster a similar effort against UConn and it’s gigantic front line. Stewart, Dolson and Kiah Stokes dominated the interior. The Huskies outrebounded the Irish 54-31 and held them to a season-low in points.
After the teams traded shots early on, Stewart — who earned outstanding player of the tournament honors for the second straight season — fueled a 16-0 run as the Huskies, who have played stellar defense all season, held the Irish without a point for nearly five minutes. Stewart’s lay-in with 11:02 left made it 22-8.
A minute later, Dolson had an acrobatic tip to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis for another layup.
The Irish stayed in the first half by hot 3-point shooting by Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd. Trailing 37-25 with 4:09 left in the first half, the pair sparked a 13-6 run, hitting three 3-pointers which brought the Irish faithful to their feet.
UConn led 45-38 at the half, shooting 57 percent from the field and having 16 assists on their 21 baskets.
The Huskies closed the door on any Irish comeback scoring 18 of the first 22 points in the second half to put the game away. Stewart and Dolson had 10 points during the burst.
“I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the coaching profession because I get to coach players like Stefanie and Bria” Hartley, Auriemma said, fighting back tears. “Yeah, I get to coach guys like that and that’s why we can do what we do.”
Dolson had promised President Barack Obama at the White House that the Huskies would be back, and UConn delivered.