Source: USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS — When it was Breanna Stewart’s turn to take a snip of the net after Connecticut won its eighth national title, she probably could have done it without a ladder. Given the impressive heights she’s reached as a freshman, it’s clear Connecticut’s dynasty isn’t in danger of ending anytime soon.
John Wooden’s legendary run at UCLA, in which he won 10 national titles, has always seemed like one of those records that would stand for basketball eternity.
Then along came Geno Auriemma, who has never lost an NCAA championship game. The Huskies (35-4) won their eighth national title, tying Tennessee’s record, by routing Louisville 93-60 on Tuesday. It was the most lopsided victory in a title game.
“To be there in that spot with her means a lot to me,” Auriemma said about his long-time rival Pat Summitt, whose career was cut short after last season by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Still, he said he didn’t belong to be compared to anyone but Summitt, whom he called “the greatest women’s basketball coach that’s ever lived.”
“I never beat Coach K in a game, never coached against John Wooden,” he said.
With Stewart on campus for three more years, there likely will be more hardware in UConn’s immediate future. Stewart, the game’s most outstanding player, was unstoppable, with 23 points and nine rebounds. “If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t be here,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said.
Stewart downplayed her achievement. “I appreciate it. It’s nice,” she said, adding that the national title, that little snippet of net, means much more. “That’s the best thing,” she said.
During the last stretch of the regular season, Stewart, the 2012 national high school player of the year, settled into a scoring slump she couldn’t shake.
The 6-4 Stewart plays the game with lightness and ease. When her smile went away, Auriemma said, “I was really really worried about her.”
In the Big East tournament, Stewart rediscovered her shot, her sense of self, and most importantly her smile. “She got it back and she got it back just in time and here we are,” Auriemma said.
In the NCAA tournament, Stewart had one of the most impressive freshman runs in history. She averaged almost 21 points, six rebounds, while blocking 21 shots in five games. (She missed the first round game against Idaho with a calf injury.) With the national title, she accomplished something that neither Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore achieved as freshman.
Many believe Stewart, who’s from Syracuse, N.Y., could be the greatest player in UConn history. Louisville probably wouldn’t argue.
“She’s a freak of nature. She’s got a wingspan that’s close to Brittney Griner’s, I think,” said Louisville’s Sara Hammond, who led the Cardinals with 15 points. Baylor’s Griner is 6-8.
Hammond said that because Stewart can hit jumpers from anywhere on the court, post you up, take you off the dribble and block your shot when you least expect it, she’s an impossible match-up.
The needling that takes place between star and coach is an Auriemma staple. Over the years, and the eight national championships, the mock exasperation and sarcasm go back and forth with easy banter. Stewart became Auriemma’s new foil.
In his postgame press conference, he began by effusively praising Faris. “She deserves this championship because she competes for a national championship every day in everything she does. I’m really, really happy for her,” Auriemma said. Then he looked over at his freshman. “Stewy,” he said. “Eh.”
Despite the ribbing, which goes back and forth, Stewart’s actions when she left the podium said it all. She hugged Auriemma tightly, then mussed his perfectly coiffed hair.
Given the rout, Griner, and many others, felt a Baylor-UConn final would have been a much better show. Baylor handed the Huskies one of their four losses this season. (Notre Dame beat UConn three times this season but lost to the Huskies in the national semifinals.)
During UConn’s 19-0 run in the first half, Griner tweeted: “It’s a wrap!! Show no mercy.” Griner became a Huskies fan after the Cardinals bumped Baylor out of the tournament in a regional final.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that if Baylor had been in this game against us, we win by 30,” Auriemma said. “Things had to break right a little bit for us. But that’s just the way the tournament goes.”
Not even Louisville men’s coach Rick Pitino, who delivered a pregame pep talk, could lift the Cardinals. In January when these two teams last played, the Huskies (minus Stewart, who had an ankle injury) easily dispatched Louisville by 14 points. Since then, Stewart’s dominance has made the Huskies even better. Their relentless defensive pressure wore the Cardinals down. They also beat Louisville at their own game, hitting 13 three-pointers. The Cardinals’ storybook run was built on their long-range prowess.
Louisville’s only other trip to the championship game, in 2009, ended with a loss to UConn. Louisville (29-9) has beaten UConn only once — in 1993, the first game of their 14 meetings. Eight of UConn’s wins have been by 20 or more points, none more devastating than Tuesday night’s.
As soon as the nets were cut down, the dance party began. As the Huskies headed off the court, they lofted Auriemma on their shoulders. But, somehow he ended up horizontal, as if he was crowd surfing. Despite the awkward exit, it didn’t matter. With eight down, two more to go, history is in reach.
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