For the second straight night, Storrs, Conn. is the center of the college basketball world.
One night after the UConn men won their fourth national title, Geno Auriemma’s women’s squad battered and bruised their way to a record ninth program championship with a 79-58 victory over Notre Dame, winning the first-ever championship game between two undefeated programs, men or women. Auriemma, whose team finished 40-0, now has one more than legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, and, combining the men and women, UConn improved its mind-numbing record to 13-0 in championship games.
“I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the coaching profession because I get to coach players like Stephanie [Dolson] and Bria [Hartley],” Auriemma said to ESPN, before tearing up. “Yeah, I get to coach guys like that, and that’s why we can do what we do. … To see their faces [as seniors] when they walked off the court, I don’t usually get this emotional, but this one got me.”
It’s the fifth time the Huskies have won a title with an unblemished record and just the eighth undefeated championship season in women’s NCAA history. The last was Baylor, which finished 40-0 in 2012.
Factor in the stakes, the records, the never-forgotten Big East rivalry despite football-driven realignment’s best efforts, and Tuesday’s final from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville was described pre-game as “the biggest game in the history of our sport,” by ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, herself a former UConn standout. It probably didn’t amount to those heights, but there were enough layers to make it a distinct possibility.
It’s why the storylines — both UConn teams vying for duel titles for just the second time in NCAA basketball history (UConn did it in 2004), the stewing rivalry between the two preeminent programs in women’s college basketball, the barbs traded by the two coaches prior to the game — made the game so riveting.
Of UConn’s double-title feat, F Stephanie Dolson said “it means the world. Shabazz, guys, we went out with a bang.”
The stage wasn’t lost on either Auriemma or Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, and both knew Tuesday’s final was a chance to advance the sport, regardless of who won. Perhaps that played into McGraw’s comments suggesting that the rivalry had lost its “civility” and that “hate” would accurately describe the mutual feelings between the two programs. They knew the college basketball world was listening.
Was it partly contrived? Who knows, and honestly, who cares? Do rivalries between Rick Pitino and John Calipari not make the men’s game more interesting? Of course they do. It’s part of college basketball, and as for the women’s landscape, UConn remains the standard after winning back-to-back championships.
The Irish, who have been in the NCAA final three of the past four years but haven’t won a title since 2001, had no answer for UConn’s frontcourt tandem of Breanna Stewart and Dolson. Stewart, the AP’s National Player of the Year, was particulary troublesome for the Irish on both ends of the court. Her length disrupted any penetration from the Irish’s stellar backcourt, and her offensive skillset was on full display. The two forwards combined for 38 points and 25 rebounds and 11 assists while Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis poured in 18 to complement UConn’s bigs. UConn’s rebounding margin was a stunning 54-31, including 22 second-chance rebounds.
When did Dolson feel like the championship was there for the taking?
“Right at the beginning. That opening tap. Our team had such confidence when we came out for this game, we went into it, so excited, so pumped. Everyone said we had a lot of pressure on our back, we went in and were loose, played great, and we knew right at the beginning,” Dolson said.
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SOURCE: CBS Sports – Mike Singer