Apr 09, 2014 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
So far, the dreams and hopes that Cicero-North Syracuse’s Breanna Stewart carried with her to the University of Connecticut have all worked out – to perfection.
Stewart’s sophomore season ended just like her freshman season did, as the Huskies won yet another NCAA women’s basketball championship Tuesday night by handling Notre Dame 79-58 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
This particular time, UConn made all kinds of history, winning a record ninth NCAA title for head coach Geno Auriemma, completing a perfect 40-0 season and joining their male counterparts for a rare national championship double to match the one pulled off by these same Huskies in 2004.
At the heart of it all was Stewart, who in her sophomore season was chosen as the Associated Press National Player of the Year, among many other honors, and then was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, just as she was a year ago in New Orleans.
Right from the start of the season, Stewart and UConn dealt with the program’s usual high expectations, knowing that anything short of a national title would be considered an underachievement.
And it did so amid conference turmoil. Long a member of the Big East, UConn escaped that league to join the fledgling American Athletic Conference, where on the women’s side the Huskies would contend with Louisville, the same team it beat in the 2013 national championship game.
The season started Nov. 9 with UConn romping past Hartford 89-34. A series of big non-conference wins over two other eventual Final Four participants, Stanford (76-57) and Maryland (72-55), immediately followed, as did victories over Penn State (71-52) and Duke (83-61).
Once American Athletic Conference play began, no one would get close to the Huskies, including Louisville, who lost by margins of 81-64 and 68-48 in the regular season and then 72-52 in the league tournament final March 10 at Uncasville, Conn.
All the while, Stewart accumulated a series of great performances. With ample help from teammates like Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Stewart picked up 19.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on her way to AAC Player of the Year honors. Twenty-two times this season, Stewart would lead her team in scoring.
Given the top seed for the Lincoln Regional in the NCAA Tournament, UConn roared past Prairie View A&M 87-44 and Saint Joseph’s 91-52 before heading to Lincoln, fortunate that its regional semifinal opponent, Brigham Young, had beaten Nebraska in the second round, preventing the Huskies from getting a true road game against the Cornhuskers.
Not that BYU proved easy. The Cougars led for large portions of the first half, but UConn rallied to beat them 70-51. Much the same thing happened in the regional final against 2011 national champion Texas A&M, but a 69-54 victory propelled Stewart and the Huskies back to the Final Four.
Once in Nashville, Stewart received her AP National Player of the Year trophy, and then turned her attention to a national semifinal rematch with Stanford. As she had done through much of the tournament, Stewart struggled from the field, but still managed 18 points, half of it from nine-for-11 free-throw shooting, as the Huskies again conquered the Cardinal 75-56.
And this set up the long-anticipated final between 39-0 UConn and 37-0 Notre Dame, the first time in a men’s or women’s NCAA final where two undefeated teams met to decide it all.
What added to the atmosphere was that the two teams were once Big East rivals, with the Fighting Irish winning six of the nine previous meetings. Also, some Notre Dame folks, including head coach Muffet McGraw, were not happy that Stewart had been chosen over the Irish’s Kayla McBride for that AP National Player of the Year honor.
But what hurt Notre Dame the most was that one of its senior leaders, forward Natalie Achonwa, injured her knee in the Irish’s regional final win over Baylor. Notre Dame didn’t miss her in a lopsided semifinal win over Maryland, but against UConn, that was another matter.
Right from the start, the Huskies’ front line of Stewart, Dolson and Mosqueda-Lewis would dominate on the boards. Stewart, in particular, shook off her uneven play and scored 14 first-half points as UConn led by as much as 14 before Notre Dame cut the margin to 45-38 by halftime.
Early in the second half, the Huskies restored that double-digit margin, and Notre Dame never got close again. Stewart, contributing in so many ways, finished with a team-high 21 points, to go with nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks, while Dolson had 17 points and 16 rebounds. Mosqueda-Lewis had 18 points and seven rebounds, while Hartley had 13 points.
Thanks to the efforts of Stewart, Auriemma surpassed the eight national titles Tennessee coaching great Pat Summitt achieved – and did so in the state of Tennessee. Given that Stewart has two more years to go, there’s a good chance Auriemma could match what John Wooden did on the men’s side with his 10 national titles at UCLA, and perhaps go further.