Connecticut players react to winning the Huskies 8th national championship over Louisville.
NEW ORLEANS – Connecticut is back on top fearsome as ever after the Huskies rode freshman Breanna Stewart’s brilliance to a lopsided 93-60 victory over Big East rival Louisville Tuesday night in the New Orleans Arena for their eighth NCAA Division I women’s basketball national title.
Stewart, who arrived at UConn (35-4) from her native Syracuse, N.Y., back in the fall with the accolade of being the top high school prospect in the nation, earned Most Outstanding Player honors after another stellar performance, this time scoring 23 points, grabbing nine rebounds, blocking three shots, getting three steals and dealing three assists.
She is the first freshman since Tennessee’s Tonya Edwards in 1987 to win the MOP award and only the fourth in the history of the tournament joining the fabled Cheryl Miller from Southern Cal and former Texas great Clarissa Davis along with Edwards.
Louisville (29-9), the first fifth seed to advance to the title game, was able to advance here by doing UConn’s dirty work in the regional semifinals in Oklahoma City when coach Jeff Walz’s team produced one of the all-time shockers in upsetting top-seed and prohibitive overall favorite Baylor, the defending champion.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that if Baylor had been in this game against us, you know, we win by 30,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So things had to break right a little bit for us, too. But that’s just the way the tournament goes.”
The game looked like it might one of the more competitive ones at the final stage of the tournament when Louisville held a 14-10 lead with 13 minutes, 51 seconds left in the half.
Fueled by Stewart, the Huskies then exploded on a 19-0 run and though Louisville later in the game cut the deficit to 16 points UConn went on to set an all-time record for the size of a wipeout in the championship contest.
Besides the all-around play of Stewart, sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 18 points, senior Kelly Farris scored 16 points and Bria Hartley scored 13 to join their freshman teammate on the all-tournament team. Stefanie Dolson was also in double figures with 12 points.
Louisville’s Sara Hammond had 15 points but Atonita Slaughter off her play prior to Tuesday night, earned the fifth spot on the tourney team.
Though the Connecticut scoring was impressive, what really helped was the Huskies’ defense and rebounding in which they had a 44-28 advantage over the Cardinals. The UConn bench outscored Louisville’s reserves 24-12 and the Huskies also had a 16-7 advantage on second chance points.
Where Louisville couldn’t live off its three-point shooting this time, going 5-for-23, Connecticut sizzled at 13-for-26 with Mosqueda-Lewis burying five from beyond the arc, Stewart a perfect 3-for-3, and Faris going 4-for-7.
The skyline of collegiate women’s basketball achievement now has two towers side by side because in going a perfect 8-0 in NCAA title contests, the total places Auriemma alongside former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for most trophies in the history of the women’s tournament that began in 1982.
With Summitt no longer on the sidelines, Auriemma has an arsenal of weaponry for the next several years to not only rise above his sister Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer but match the 10 NCAA titles the legendary John Wooden collected guiding the UCLA men’s team.
“Winning tonight validates a lot of what we wanted to do, what we aspired to be,” Auriemma said in the postgame press conference about the trophy collection. “On ESPN they put up a list of John Wooden, Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp.
“I’m like: `That’s not the way it works. That’s not the way it works.’
“I never coached against Coach Wooden. So the only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. And to be there in that spot with her means a lot to me.”
In a gesture of class that is so representative of her career, Pat Summitt issued a statement praising Auriemma for the accomplishment; "Congratulations to Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies on a remarkable season and an 8th National Title. Geno has had a special year, leading our National Team to an Olympic Gold Medal and his Connecticut team to an NCAA Championship. He is a proven champion and a leader in our game. My best to him, his family, his team and staff."
Connecticut also beat Louisville for the 2009 title which concluded the first part of two unbeaten back-to-back title runs that extended with a continued string into the next season that enabled the Huskies to set a new men’s and women’s win streak record at 90.
The win blocked Louisville from pulling a double trophy celebration after the Cardinals men’s team beat Michigan Monday night. Coach Rick Pitino then came here to support the women.
Connecticut is the only school to achieve the feat in 2004.
Big East commissioner Mike Aresco was in the house for the last moments of his conference in men’s and women’s basketball as it is presently structured.
When the two meet again next season, the football portion will be its own group with some additions and subtractions and known as the American Athletic Conference. The following season Louisville will join the now departing Notre Dame contingent for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Huskies snapped a three-game losing streak from the regular season to Notre Dame in beating the Irish in the semifinals in one final glorious run for the Big East.
"The success of the BIG EAST at the Final Four this year capped such a special year for the league,” Aresco said in a statement late Tuesday night.
“Certainly having three women’s basketball teams in the Final Four, including both of the title game participants, speaks volumes about the strength of our women's basketball programs. Congratulations to Geno and the Huskies on their well-deserved title, as well as to the Cardinals and Irish on great seasons."
The win capped a month of stunning reversal for Connecticut, which had lost the Big East championship to Notre Dame on its second home court in Hartford in the final seconds causing doubts among the faithful, especially with the notion that Baylor was seemingly invincible.
“I can’t put into words how thankful I am for this group,” Faris spoke of the reversal of fortune when asked. “And for ‘Coach’ to turn this around after the Big East tournament.
“We sat in the locker room and he looked at us and he said, `You know what? When we get back together, I’m going to show you how to win a national championship,’” Faris continued.
“And sure enough, we’re sitting right here. So there’s times that I don’t know how the heck he does what he does, but he’s but he’s pretty darn good at his job and he figures out a way to get it done,” she smiled.
“And happy to have him on my side.”
Stewart, who struggled during at midseason and then missed a few games with injuries, was part of the turnaround.
“That changed us a ton,” Faris said. “I don’t think people understand how much we needed her to get to this point. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t be here.
“And we all know that, and I hope she knows that. If she didn’t turn it around and step up like she has – I mean, we have a freshman that is the MVP of the national championship game. And that doesn’t happen anywhere but here (UConn). And she deserves it.”
Auriemma said likewise about his entire team.
“This last month has been everything and more that I could ever hope for with this team and these players,” he said. “And they deserve this. They really do. Sometimes you stumble upon a championship, sometimes the other team hands it to you.
“But this particular group, especially Kelly, she deserves this championship because she competes for a national championship every day in everything she does. And I’m really, really happy for her.”