NEW ORLEANS – The University of Connecticut didn’t have to resort to voodoo in the Big Easy Sunday night to break Notre Dame’s mysterious mastery of the Huskies … freshman Breanna Stewart was magical enough.
Stewart exploded for a a career-high 29 points and blocked four shots as the Huskies blasted their way out of a 7-for-8 lockdown by the Irish in recent games to produce an 83-65 victory and move to Tuesday night’s national championship contest in the New Orleans Arena.
The outcome sends UConn (34-4) against Big East rival Louisville (28-8), which has been casting its own spell the past few weeks and rallied in Sunday’s opener from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat California, 64-57, and become the first fifth-seed team to play for a championship in the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball T ournament.
Besides overcoming the Golden Bears (32-4), the Cardinals shocked Baylor, the overall No. 1 seed in the field, and then upset No. 2 Tennessee last weekend in the Oklahoma City Regional.
A Connecticut win Tuesday night would give the Huskies and coach Geno Auriemma eight national titles, tying him with former Tennessee head coach and Hall-of-Famer Pat Summitt, but he wouldn’t have had the chance if Connecticut hadn’t snapped two streaks with Notre Dame (35-2). One was the three straight setbacks this season in the Big East, in which each result was determined in the final minute.
Coach Muffet McGraw’s squad also had a three-game win streak at this level of the tournament, ruining a UConn title bid in 2001 and then stopping the Huskies in 2011 and again last season.
“We’ve come a long way,” Auriemma said. “And this is really, really, really rewarding. The Notre Dame team, we beat is a great, great, great team. You don’t beat us seven out of eight times without being a great team.
“So my hat’s off to them and the kind of year that they’ve had, but tonight was our night.”
Besides Stewart’s play, which has elevated in recent weeks to match her promise as the nation’s top high school recruit when she chose UConn, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 16 points, freshman Bria Hartley added 15, and senior Kelly Faris chipped in 10.
Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride, who had been a painful thorn in the side of UConn, had 16 points, but was 5-for-20 from the field, while Jewell Loyd, the USBWA freshman of the year, scored 11 points.
Additionally, Natalie Achonwa scored 10 points as did all-American Skylar Diggins, one of the top three prospects in the upcomig WNBA draft, who closed out her collegiate career with a third straight Final Four loss (including two in the 2011 and 2012 title games).
Auriemma whispered in her ear after the game and both sides were shaking hands.
“He just said `Don’t let this game define my legacy,’” said a tearful Diggins, who like McBride, was filled with the emotion of the loss while answering questions at the postgame press conference.
“He told me he feels like I’ve done more for the sport than some people who won four national championships. And he just told me that I’ve done a lot for the game of basketball and I had a great career.”
As in the previous encounters, the game was close at the outset, though the Irish couldn’t hit shots, but then a 14-3 run to close out the half gave UConn a 39-29 lead that had Notre Dame in a chaser’s role the rest of the way.
“I’m just so proud of the team and what we accomplished this year and hate for it to end on a game like this when we just – just played so poorly,” McGraw said.
“I thought Breanna Stewart was fantastic. She was just unbelievable. I think her and Lewis, obviously, they just killed us. And we contained everybody else, but we did not have an answer for them.”
“And defensively, it’s probably the most disappointing. I know we can miss shots, but I felt we could play better, defensively. And that was a disappointing way for this really wonderful season to end.”
Stewart said of her improved play: “I think this postseason I’ve really gained a lot more confidence. And today was a game that I was really looking forward to playing. I think all of us were.”
In 2001, when Notre Dame rallied from a deep halftime deficit and went on to beat UConn and go on to its only NCAA title, beating Purdue, Huskies’ freshman sensation Diana Taurasi struggled from the field.
She came back the next three seasons to lead UConn to successive NCAA titles and of course there have been a slew of other greats in the Huskies’ program.
But Auriemma thought Stewart’s performance was right up there.
“Given the stage and what was at stake, I don’t know – I don’t know that I’ve seen any bigger,” he said. “I know there’s been NCAA Tournament games where we’ve had certain individuals play great, great games.”
“But I don’t remember a player having a better game in this environment, and certainly I’ve never seen a freshman have a game like this in this environment,” Auriemma said.
“She’s just one of these unique kids that doesn’t take herself too seriously, doesn’t demand a lot of attention. And I hope she’s got another one left in her Tuesday night.”
Regardless of who wins Tuesday, the outcome will give the Big East nine titles, one more than the eight won by the Southeastern Conference. Louisville, of course, will have the wizardry that brought the Cardinals wins over prohibitive favorite Baylor and perennial power Tennessee – but UConn may just have a reincarnation of Diana Taurasi in Breanna Stewart.