NASHVILLE, Tenn. With Breanna Stewart back for two more seasons, Geno Auriemma and UConn are in position to win a few more titles.
None may be sweeter than the record ninth championship the Huskies won Tuesday night in unprecedented fashion.
Connecticut reached the pinnacle in style, routing Notre Dame in the first NCAA women’s basketball championship game featuring undefeated teams.
Auriemma and his Huskies have one more title than Pat Summitt and Tennessee for most all time, and they did it in the Hall of Famer’s backyard.
The 79-58 rout of the Irish capped the careers of seniors Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley. The pair were the final remaining links to the Huskies’ NCAA-record 90-game winning streak that ended when they were freshman. The duo finished their careers with back-to-back championships.
“It’s overwhelming,” an emotional Auriemma said. “Those two kids are two of the most unbelievable kids I’ve ever been around my whole life and to see their faces when they walked off the court, I don’t usually get this emotional, but this one got to me.”
While Auriemma loses his two seniors, he still has his sensational sophomore, who has won two national championships in her first two seasons and earned most outstanding player honors of the Final Four both times.
“I think that to be able to have two national championships under my belt means a lot,” Stewart said. “Each team has been different and I’m really happy we could send Stef and Bria off on this type of note.”
Stewart, The Associated Press Player of the Year, scored 21 points to lead the Huskies (40-0). 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 means that UConn is 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 come a decade after the Huskies became the only Division I 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.”
They didn’t need him.
The names change at UConn, from Rebecca Lobo to Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and now the Huskies have Stewart, just as much of a matchup nightmare in the women’s game as James is in the NBA.
But the one constant for UConn has been Auriemma, winning nine titles in only 20 seasons – including the past two.
Auriemma has never lost in a national championship game.
“Congratulations to the UConn Huskies for winning the 2014 NCAA National Championship!,” Summitt said in a statement. “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, the third-longest streak in school history.
“It means we’ve done something no one else has ever done,” Auriemma said. “Flattered and grateful and all the things that come with this kind of accomplishment. … I’m more proud of the legacy that exists and what Connecticut basketball is as opposed to the number of championships.”
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.
“Obviously we wanted to finish this season with a championship,” said Irish freshman Taya Reimer, who replaced Natalie Achonwa in the starting lineup. “Right now, it is hard to think about. It hurts a lot.”
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 past two, eliminating Notre Dame in the Final Four last season before topping them in the championship game this year.
The former Big East rivals played an entertaining first half in the highly anticipated matchup that women’s basketball hoped could transcend the sport. The programs don’t care for each other and 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.