History-making Huskies find the right gear

NEW ORLEANS — On a night when the NCAA honored some of the legendary names of the early years of women’s college basketball, the Connecticut Huskies continued to remake the contemporary history books.

Their 93-60 win over Louisville on Tuesday ties them with Tennessee for an NCAA record eight national championships. And UConn rolled in record-setting fashion in the most lopsided title game, eclipsing the 23-point margin of victory by Tennessee when it won its first championship in 1987.

UConn's eighth national championship ties Tennessee for the NCAA record. (Photo by Wendy Parker)

UConn's 8th national championship ties Tennessee for the NCAA record. (Photo by Wendy Parker)

That was the last time a freshman, Tennessee’s Tonya Edwards, was voted the best player at the Women’s Final Four. On Tuesday, UConn rookie Breanna Stewart ended that drought with a 23-point, 9-rebound outing to complete a brilliant tournament performance.

For UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who also ties retired Tennessee legend Pat Summitt with those eight titles, the victory “validates a lot of what we wanted to do, what we aspired to be.”

But he found other comparisons — referring to an ESPN graphic showing him on a list of college coaching greats, including John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp — not quite right.

“I never beat Coach K in a game and I never coached against John Wooden,” said Auriemma, who like Wooden is undefeated in national championship games. “The only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. To be there in that spot with her means a lot to me.”

Before he could join her at the top of that list, Auriemma had to figure out how to rectify what at least by UConn’s own standards could be called a funk.

Two confounding last-minute losses to Notre Dame in early March didn’t inspire much confidence.

Neither did Stewart, whose play at times had Auriemma mussing his hair more than usual.

But he said he felt “something click” in UConn’s NCAA second-round game against Vanderbilt, and in successive games against Maryland and Kentucky. By the time their reached the Final Four, Stewart and the Huskies were clicking from every spot on the floor.

“I think a lot of people on the outside doubted it,” senior forward Kelly Faris said of UConn’s reversal of fortunes.

She said that after the Notre Dame loss in the Big East Finals — their third of the season to the Irish — Auriemma told them in the locker room that “I’m going to show you how to win a national championship.”

Added Faris: “I don’t know how the heck he does what he does but he’s pretty darn good at his job. I’m glad he’s on my side.”

Among the things Auriemma did was to tweak  his lineup, bringing speedy guard Bria Hartley off the bench, in part to provide a spark. Stewart, a lanky 6-foot-4 forward Auriemma predicted would be one of the greatest UConn players ever upon her arrival, placed enormous pressure on herself to succeed quickly in a program where national championships are expected.

Extra shooting time in the gym with associate head coach Chris Dailey gave Stewart some solace, and the confidence to crack through mental barriers.

“She has a little kid’s attitude towards everything that happens,” Auriemma said. “She sees the fun and the joy in everything, and there were times that all went away, and I was really, really worried about her.”

Against Notre Dame in Sunday’s semifinals, Stewart scored 29 points, and was just as sterling in the championship game. As impressive as her scoring was her full Final Four storyline — 14 rebounds, four assists, four steals and seven blocked shots.

In addition to her languid shooting form, Stewart demonstrated her pure athletic ability after a missed UConn shot against Louisville, bolting high for the rebound and grasping the loose ball with her long left arm before heaving it back up and into the basket in one motion.

“I don’t think people understood how much we needed her,” Faris said. “If we don’t have her, we’re not here.”

Stewart demurred when asked about her Most Outstanding Player honor: “I appreciate it. But we just won the national championship and that’s the best thing.”

In Louisville (29-9) UConn was facing what Auriemma called “the only team that’s been better than us the last month.” The Cardinals shocked defending national champion Baylor in the Sweet 16, upended Tennessee and prevailed over Cal in the national semifinals in large part due to superb 3-point shooting.

Geno Auriemma said the only team better than UConn in March has been Jeff Walz' Louisville Cardinals.

Geno Auriemma said the only team that's played better than UConn in the NCAA touranment has been Jeff Walz' Louisville Cardinals. (Photo by Wendy Parker)

Before Tuesday’s game, Louisville men’s coach Rick Pitino, who traveled from Atlanta after his team won the NCAA title Monday night, gave the women’s players some pre-game inspiration.

They started out fine, leading UConn 14-10 when the Huskies went on a blistering 19-0 run in the first half. It wasn’t just Stewart, who had 18 of her 23 points before halftime. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis tied an NCAA title game record with six 3-pointers as UConn’s 93 points, including 13-for-26 shooting from 3-point range, represent the second-most by an NCAA champion.

“They just hit big shot after big shot,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “What makes them so unique i their ability to score from all five positions on the floor. You got to kind of pick your poison.”

And UConn limited Louisville to 5-for-23 from the 3-point line, holding hotshot guard Shoni Schimmel to just nine points.

UConn’s historic performance came as former stars in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women were honored at halftime, along with administrators during the period of organized women’s college athletics from 1972-1982.

Among the standouts on hand were Theresa Grentz, of the first three  AIAW championship teams from Immaculata College, as well as Naismith Hall of Famers Lusia Harris (Delta State), Carol Blazejowski (Montclair State), Ann Meyers (UCLA), Lynette Woodard (Kansas).

They witnessed an 18-year-old player who’s been pegged to be the next great star at UConn — joining the company of Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Maya Moore in the pantheon of contemporary college greats.

With them, Auriemma has won all of his titles in the past 18 seasons. It was in 1991 in New Orleans that the upstart Huskies joined storied Tennessee, Stanford and Virginia in the Final Four.

“When we left and we didn’t win, I thought: ‘What if we never go back? What if it’s that one and done?’

“And when we won our first national championship in 1995, I thought: ‘Lots of people won one. What if we don’t win another one ever again?’ So I’m always looking into the future and thinking: ‘Is this it? Is this the last one?'”

With Stewart around for three more seasons and just two regulars departing — although one of them is the invaluable Faris –UConn’s run appears to be far from over.

“I don’t see how that’s going to change,” Walz said on Monday about UConn’s dominance, “unless he decides to retire, which I think he should.”

Instead, further comparisons to Wooden and his 10 NCAA titles will continue, probably to Auriemma’s chagrin.

“To see where we’ve come from and what’s happened at Connecticut in the last 18 years, I would say that never in our wildest dreams did we think this was possible.”

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