By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
TAMPA, Fla. – In many Olympic disciplines such as gymnastics and figure skating, 10 is the mark of perfection.
Appropriately, coach Geno Auriemma, the return leader of the USA women’s basketball at next year’s games in Brazil, was hanging tens in the collegiate women’s world Tuesday night after Connecticut topped Notre Dame for its third straight NCAA title in the Breanna Stewart era.
Ten was the differential before a crowd of 19,810 in Amalie Arena in the 63-53 outcome over the Irish (36-3), whose losses were the two to the Huskies (38-1) and one regular-season defeat at Miami during the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of the Notre Dame schedule.
Ten is the total for a perfect 10-0 victory streak BY UConn when it comes to playing for the NCAA title.
And 10 is the total of titles Auriemma has produced to match the overall success on the men’s side by the legendary John Wooden with the UCLA men.
For the previous two seasons, Auriemma’s story was about passing the women’s legendary Tennessee coach emeritus Pat Summitt, which the Philadelphian who was born in Italy achieved last season to become the all-time winner in the women’s world.
Now, “Wait Till Next Year,” a phrase usually uttered by those whose seasons end in degrees of disappointment, is apropos for even greater things out of UConn and for Auriemma.
Despite the graduation of departing seniors Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes, a top-rated recruiting class, highlighted by California’s Katie Lou Samuelson, the high school player of the year, will be arriving at Storrs.
There’s the first opportunity for Auriemma to pass Wooden and also become the first USA women’s coach to guide our Olympians to a second gold medal following the seven previously attained.
Auriemma now has more NCAA titles than all the combined active women’s coaches in Division I and his 10 also matches the number of NBA crowns won by Phil Jackson, as well as the 10 by Wooden..
Phil Jackson in the NBA also won 10 titles along with the 10 by Wooden and Auriemma.
“We all coached some of the most iconic players to play the game of basketball,” Auriemma said. “So I think we have that as the thread that runs through all three.
“Anytime you’re in a championship situation, anytime you’re trying to win any tournament, but especially the national championship, so many things have to go right and you have to have players that make those plays that make it go right.
“To do that 10 times in a row, win 10 and be 10-0 in National Championship games is – again, it’s too big for me to think about it. It’s too much. Too much.”
As for his star player among stars in Breanna Stewart, the 6-4 junior forward from North Syracuse, eligibility limitations means three is her mark in perfection.
After scoring eight points and 15 rebounds against the Irish, the two-time national player of the year has now won all three NCAA crowns attainable and in each of those Women’s Final Fours, she has picked up three Most Outstanding Player honors, the most by any individual in women’s collegiate history.
UCLA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar did it once on the men’s side.
“I think it’s really surreal, and I think I haven’t had a chance to even think about that, the fact that I won three national championships,” Stewart said. “But I said I want to win four, and you can’t win four without three.”
Speaking of threes, the Huskies are the only team to win three straight titles multiple times while Tennessee, the only other school to claim the triple, did it just once (1996-98).
The only mark of greatness missed this time around by UConn was caused by an 88-86 upset loss the first week of the season at Stanford and that one occurred in overtime.
That led many to think that perhaps Notre Dame might finally return to its stretch of domination the Irish briefly enjoyed several years ago over the Huskies.
But five games later when Connecticut arrived in South Bend, Ind., to play the host Irish, after falling behind in the opening minutes, the Huskies rallied and went on to win easily 76-58.
“A lot of changes were made in that time,” Auriemma said Tuesday night of the stretch between the loss to the Cardinal and the win over Notre Dame.
Still, Irish fans could note their team lacked sensational freshman Brianna Turner, who was sidelined with an injury.
On Tuesday night, on the way to a 31-23 lead at the half, Turner was shutout those first 20 minutes before finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
But Jewell Loyd, who was the leading challenger to Stewart all season in the player of the year competition, was held to just two points over the same period after scoring 10 in the opening period.
Taya Reimer had 11 rebounds and that was it in terms of double figures produced by Notre Dame, which has now lost in the championship four times in the last five seasons including last season’s first-ever battle of unbeaten teams in Nashville, Tenn.
Besides Stewart, the two other named all-Americans on the Huskies had key moments in point guard Moriah Jefferson with 15 points and Mosqueda-Lewis, who also had 15 points and delivered two straight treys for a 61-50 lead with 4 minutes, 8 seconds left after Notre Dame had made it close at 56-50 on Lindsay Allen’s layup with 5:29 left.
“It meant a lot to be able to step up for my teammates in a big time when they needed me,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “And definitely kind of had it in the back of my mind that we wanted to go out with a National championship and being able to hold that trophy up at the end of the game and end my senior year the way I wanted to and the way that any basketball player wantds to is amazing.”
“I’m glad the two buckets that K made down the stretch were kind of the difference in the game,” Auriemma said. “And that’s the way she’s supposed to go out, because she made a big difference all year and throughout her career.”
Morgan Tuck also scored in double figures for UConn with 12 points.
“I thought that 3 that Lewis hit in transition was critical,” Notre Dame coach Muffet Mcgraw said. “We had just cut it to 6. Now it’s a five-point swing and went to 11 and that was the game.”
UConn’s Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson made the all Final Four team along with Notre Dame’s Turner and Loyd.
That’s it except for a possible follow-up the next several days.