NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Connecticut Huskies thoroughly trounced Notre Dame Tuesday night in the championship game of the 2014 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament, pounding their way to a 79-58 win, defending their 2013 national title and setting multiple records along the way. With the victory, Connecticut took home its ninth national championship, surpassing the eight-title record established by Hall-of-Fame coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee and becoming the all-time leader in the women's game. UConn is a perfect 9-0 in national championship games, all under head coach Geno Auriemma, who is now just one national title shy of the record 10 championships won by the legendary John Wooden on the men's side of the game.
Speaking of the men, this marks only the second time in NCAA Division I history that the same school has won both the men's and women's basketball championships in the same season, and in both cases, Connecticut was the school that accomplished the feat. The Husky men (33-6) and women (31-4) took home both titles a decade ago in 2004, and again this year with the men finishing their season 32-8 and the women a perfect 40-0. Central Missouri's men (29-3) and women (31-4) won both the NCAA Division II men's and women's titles in 1984.
This marked the fifth undefeated season for the Husky women and by preserving its undefeated record on Tuesday, UConn joined Baylor, who set the record two years ago, as the only schools to have ever achieved a perfect 40-0 season record. The Huskies also became just the eighth undefeated national champion in NCAA history, the fourth team to finish with a perfect record in the last six seasons and the only undefeated team ever to win the national championship by knocking off another undefeated team. Never before tonight have two undefeated teams battled one another for the national championship in any of the NCAA's three divisions.
Husky post strength too much for the Irish
And -- for the true trivia buff -- tonight marked the first time in school history that UConn has won three national championships in the same academic year, taking home the hardware in field hockey, men's basketball and women's basketball in 2013-14.
Oh, yes. The game. It divided itself fairly neatly between the two halves: In the first, the Irish trailed, but battled gamely and stayed just close enough to make an upset conceivable, if highly unlikely. In the second, the Huskies simply blew their opponent right off the court.
The true difference in the game was Connecticut’s post players, and Notre Dame's lack thereof. Breanna Stewart, recently named as Full Court's National Player of the Year and announced today as this year's Naismith Trophy winner, put up a team-high 21 points, hauled down nine rebounds, dished out four assists and swatted away two blocked shots to walk away with Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors for the second year in a row. Stefanie Dolson was equally impressive, closing out her collegiate career with a double-double of 17 points and 16 rebounds, and icing the cake with seven assists and three blocks.
"I told Stewie [Breanna Stewart] that she needed to give half of that [Most Outstanding Player Trophy] to Stef -- she deserved it," said Auriemma, who then quipped, "of course, Stewie doesn't agree."
Mosqueda-Lewis was nearly as good from mid- to long-range as Dolson and Stewart were deep in the paint, adding 18 points, including two of the Huskies' four 3-pointers, plus seven boards, two assists and two steals. Senior guard Bria Hartley rounded out the double-digit scoring for the Huskies with 13 points, three assists and a blocked shot.
The Huskies set the tone in the first half by feeding Stewart and Dolson under the basket, either with a direct pass or a backdoor cut, play after play. Though Notre Dame tried to disrupt the passing lanes, the UConn guards seemed to have no difficulty in getting the ball inside. Connecticut outscored Notre Dame in the paint 32-10 in the first half and 52-22 on the game.
The Huskies' post held a significant height advantage over the Irish, even had the latter been at full strength, Dolson (6-5) and Stewart (6-4) holding a five-inch edge over the Irish frontcourt of Natalie Achonwa (6-3 )and Ariel Braker (6-1). (And that's when Connecticut opts not to go big by adding 6-3 reliever Kiah Stokes to the lineup.)
But the Irish were not a full strength. Achonwa, the top rebounder, a leading scorer and the emotional leader for the Irish, tore her ACL in Notre Dame's Elite Eight win over Baylor, leaving the remaining Notre Dame players scrambling to fill the void left by her absence. Though it didn’t seem to make a difference against Maryland in Sunday’s semifinal, Achonwa was clearly missed last night. Notre Dame attempted to fill the vacancy in the starting five with freshman forward Tara Reimer. At 6-3, Reimer gave up nothing in height but a boatload in experience, as compared to Achonwa. The rookie gave it her all for 28 minutes, finishing with six points, four boards and three blocks. (Achonwa averaged nearly 15 points and eight rebounds this season.)
"Right from the beginning of the game, we went in [and] took advantage of the size we had against them. And right when we realized what an advantage we had, we just kept kind of pushing it at them, and we never really backed down," said Dolson. "Give a lot of credit to my guards. They got me the ball. Stewy [Breanna Stewart], we got her the ball a lot in the post, too. When we got it, we just did what we wanted and finished it."
Irish coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged that the difference in the post was paramount. As she left the court, she said, “I said [to Huskies coach Geno Auriemma] something like, 'I thought we were playing the Miami Heat for a while; you guys are just that good,'” McGraw said. “I thought they were just missing LeBron (James).”
“They killed us inside,” she added. “Their bigs were just too much for us. I thought Stewart was phenomenal. I thought we were overmatched in the post.”
Coaches mend fences after Monday's media rift
After Monday's media hoopla about the two coaches' supposed disdain for one another, both went out of their way to be complimentary toward one another, as well as of the rival teams following Tuesday's game.
"Anybody who watched that first half had to really admire both teams," said Auriemma, "the way we played, how hard we played, both teams, how hard we competed. I said this the other day: Notre Dame's the best team we played all year. No one else is even close. And I knew it was going to take an unbelievable effort for us to beat them."
As for what he told McGraw in the handshake line, Auriemma put to rest the rumblings that part of the supposed tension between the two arose out of hard feelings over the AP Coach of the Year award, which went to McGraw, and Player of the Year Award, which went to UConn's Stewart while the Irish thought McBride had been overlooked.
"I told Muffet after the game, I don't think she got enough credit. She won Coach of the Year. But I don't think she even got enough credit for how her team performed all year-long. That was an unbelievable team we played tonight. And we played about as well as we played at any other time in the season for sure."
Irish unable to find their rhythm
Oh, yeah -- the game.
Forward Kayla McBride, who exhibited frustration with herself and her teammates throughout the game, agreed that Notre Dame had no answer for the Huskies’ post game.
"You know, I think that we just came out under-matched," she said, adding that it was unlikely even the presence of Achonwa could have changed that. "I don't think anything could have changed to change that. They just came out and they went directly in the post and our help side wasn't there from the get-go. They got comfortable. They got into a rhythm and it went downhill from there."
But McBride, who matched Stewart's game-high of 21 points, adding five rebounds, two assists and a steal, but four turnovers, said the Irish created problems for themselves as well.
“I think we were kind of beating ourselves,” she said. “We weren’t in the rhythm in the offense, we weren’t making the extra pass, we weren’t playing the normal way we’ve been playing the past 37 games. I think that's what made it look so bad.”
|Despite her game-high-tying 21 points, Notre Dame's Kayla McBride (No. 21) wore a frustrated expression nearly from opening tip to final buzzer. Above, McBride slams the ball to the floor after an adverse call early in the first half of Tuesday night's national championship game.|
Sophomore Jewell Loyd also acknowledge the Irish didn’t take care of business.
“We didn’t box out, we didn’t communicate – we were playing on our heels,” Loyd said. “We knew they would have a run – great teams do. But we didn’t do the little things tonight. ... We never got in sync – too much dribbling, too much trying to get it back in one possession.”
Notre Dame did make a 15-7 run in the first half, closing a 14-point lead midway through to six (29-23) at the six-minute mark behind back-to-back 3-pointers from Michaela Mabrey and McBride to end the period. The Huskies swiftly battled back with an 8-2 run over the next two minutes to stretch their advantage back to 12 (37-25).
Again Notre Dame fought back, with a 13-6 spurt capped by a trey from Loyd that cut the deficit to just five points (43-38), its lowest since the game's early minutes, with 27 seconds left in the frame. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis closed the half with a put-back to send the Huskies to the locker room with a seven-point advantage (45-38).
But the second half was all UConn. The Huskies came out of the break on an 18-4 run to give themselves a 21-point advantage (63-42) with 12 minutes to play, and cruised from there to the finish line.
McGraw said the second-half Irish surge had come when Connecticut turned to its bench players. And, indeed, the only two areas in which the Irish out-played UConn were bench production, where Notre Dame head a 14-6 advantage over the Huskies, and 3-point shooting, where the Irish were 5-8 (62.5%) in the first half and 6-19 (31.6%) for the game as a whole, to Connecticut's 2-8 (25%) distance shooting in the opening frame and 4-19 (21.1%) for the game.
In the first half, said McGraw, "We made our run when they went to [the] bench. We went to the triangle-and-two [defense]. It was very effective. We made some shots. I think we got into a bit of a rhythm on our own.
"And then the second half they didn’t sub,” McGraw said. “That was the difference. We couldn’t go to the triangle with their starters. We couldn’t play them man-to-man and we couldn’t play them zone. So they went off and running. We couldn't rebound. We had no answer, really, for anything they did.”
Defense, defense, defense
From Connecticut's perspective, the issue was its own defense. "In the first half, we did an okay job," said Auriemma, "then did a terrible jobtowards the end of the half."
The second half was a different story, however. The Huskies were able to exploit Notre Dame's triangle-and-two-defense when the Irish attempted to employ it against the Husky starters. "They played the triangle and two, where they were guarding Stewy had and ... Kaleena [Mosqueda-Lewis] hard," said Auriemma. "And as we spread those guys out all over the floor, then it just left a lot of openings in the lane. And we took advantage of it."
Meanwhile, UConn ratched up its own defense in the second half. "Our defense today was unbelievable. It was incredible," said Auriemma. "I mean to hold that team to 20 points in the second half, that's incredible."
McGraw, too, credited the Husky defense, and especially Moriah Jefferson, whom she described admiringly as a gnat, for shutting down Irish star Jewell Loyd. Jefferson notched just four points, but passed out a game-high (tied, with Dolson) seven assists to go with two steals, but her biggest contribution had to be her persistent, harrying defense that limited Loyd to a season low of 13 points on the night.
"I don't think they get enough credit for their defense," said McGraw, whose own team is considered among the sport's best defenders. "They're a good defensive team. And Jefferson is kind of like a gnat. She was really feisty. K‑Mac [McBride] was able to get her shots, but Jewell struggled a little bit to find her rhythm tonight. And I think you have to credit their defense for that."
The Huskies also held Markisha Wright, who had come up big off the bench with 12 points and nine boards for Notre Dame in Sunday's semifinal against Maryland, completely scoreless and without a single rebound in Tuesday's title game. On the other hand, Michaela Mabrey, who had been a nonfactor on Sunday, contributed 10 points and two assists, but just one rebound, on Tuesday to round out the double-digit scoring for the Irish.
Loyd and McBride joined Stewart, Dolson and Hartley on the Final Four All-Tournament Team.
Seniors on both sides will be missed
McGraw expressed sorrow at the loss, for the player’s sake.
“Tonight’s game was incredibly disappointing for all of us, in particular the seniors,” she said. “I know how much they wanted it, and I wanted it for them.”
It was Notre Dame’s third loss in a title game in the last four years. Tuesday’s defeat might be the most bitter pill to swallow yet, as it marks the first time a team has entered the national championship game undefeated and did not win.
The Irish and the Huskies are heated rivals, and have met 16 times since the 2009-2010 season, with Notre Dame 9-7 in those games. The Irish’s 24-point deficit during the second half of Tuesday’s title game was their largest of the season.
McGraw said Achonwa, McBride and the team’s third senior, Ariel Braker, have left a mark on the program.
“They changed the culture, the expectation level.” McGraw said. “They set the bar really high.”
“But it’s going to be a really hard class to let go of. This was a real emotional one for me, and this group has really meant a lot to me personally, too.”
Auriemma expressed similar sentiments about losing seniors Dolson and Hartley to graduation.
"When Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson played their first game at Connecticut, it was win No. 79 in a row. That's a lot to be thrown into as a freshman. And the second game of the year was Baylor. And then we went on to win that record 90 in a row. And ever since that day they played their very first game, I can't think of two people that have given every ounce of their energy and everything that they possibly have to give for the basketball program and the people at the University of Connecticut.
"That just doesn't happen very often," Auriemma continued. "So when they came off the floor, I think we all knew exactly what was coming to a end. And even when it's as great as the ending was tonight, it's still coming to an end. And it really hit me. Hit me really hard."
Loyd, a sophomore who was Notre Dame’s leading scorer this season, said that ultimately she feels good about the year her team had, despite Tuesday's loss..
“We had a great year. A lot of people didn’t think we would get this far. People thought we would do worse without [All-American point guard] Skylar Diggins,” Loyd said. “We proved a lot of people wrong.”
“We’re young and we have a lot to look forward to.”
|Senior Stefanie Dolson hoists the national championship trophy overhead as her Connecticut teammates celebrate the program's historic ninth national title Tuesday at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Teri Priebe)|
Dolson praised Auriemma for his role in closing out her senior year with yet another national title and a perfect season as "the cherry on top" to look back on.
"To have two out of the nine [titles, during her tenure], it seems like a small little piece, but it's a piece of history and a piece of a legacy that [Auriemma] has created her at UConn. And seeing all the old players here back to kind of cheer us on in this game was something that I'll never forget. It's just a family, whether you're here 10 years ago, three years ago, or now. You're just connected," Dolson said.
"You bleed blue," she continued. "But literally, you're all connected as a family. And it's something that not a lot of people can say they're a part of. And obviously, te 40-0 -- it's pretty solid, too.
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