TAMPA, Fla. — Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, lord of the rings, once again conquered the world of women’s college basketball.
The Huskies beat familiar foe Notre Dame 63-53 in the NCAA Tournament championship game Tuesday, giving Auriemma a 10th national title. He ties John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men’s coach, for the most championships in Division I basketball.
Connecticut (38-1) captured its third consecutive national title, its fifth in seven years. The Huskies beat the Irish in the national final for the second year in a row.
Notre Dame (36-3) reached the Final Four for the fifth consecutive year but failed to win the title in any of those seasons.
This then, was the same old agony for the Irish, who played a bit out of character against the Huskies. Notre Dame shot only 33.3 percent from the floor and had 17 turnovers. Still, Notre Dame had a decided edge on the boards (45-34) that kept the Irish in the game.
Now, it will be up to the historians to argue whether Auriemma’s 10 titles are as impressive as Wooden’s.
“Obviously, it’s a significant number,” Auriemma said. “People want to talk about it. I’ll be the first to say I’m not John Wooden. I have a lot of friends who would say I’m right, I’m not. I’ll let the people who write the history decide where I fit in.”
Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart was selected the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player for the third straight season, even though her eight points were only the fifth-best total on her team. However, she grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds and blocked four shots.
Stewart is the first three-time winner of the Most Outstanding Player. Southern California’s Cheryl Miller (1983-84), Tennessee’s Chamique Holdsclaw (1997-98), Connecticut’s Diana Taurasi (2003-04) and Tennessee’s Candace Parker (2007-08) won the honor twice.
Huskies forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and guard Moriah Jefferson each scored 15 points, and they combined for five 3-pointers. Connecticut forward Morgan Tuck added 12, and guard Kia Nurse had nine.
Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd scored 12 points, but only two after halftime. Loyd shot 0-for-8 in the second half. Irish forward Brianna Turner finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“Lindsay (Allen) was getting pressured all the way up the floor,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “Got us out of our rhythm — well, when we had a rhythm.”
For Notre Dame, it was that way for most of the game, trying to stay close despite not being in sync offensively.
“We really couldn’t find the rhythm offensively,” Turner said.
McGraw gave much of the credit to Jefferson for the job she did on Loyd.
“I thought she was a great defender tonight,” McGraw said. “We weren’t able to get anything going because most of our offense runs through Jewell. She really did a great job denying her the ball.”
In all, McGraw sounded disappointed after the defeat, especially when discussing the turnovers.
“I guess the moment,” she said. “You’re in the championship game. I think we were a little tight. I thought we had nothing to lose and we would come out real loose. It was disappointing to see. They put too much pressure on themselves.”
For the next several days, outsiders will compare Auriemma with Wooden, and with Mike Krzyzewski, and with Phil Jackson.
“All of those guys had good players,” Auriemma said. “To win, so many things have to go right. To be 10-0 in championship games, it’s too big for me to think about. It’s too much.
“Whichever way people want to mention it, or acknowledge it. Some people are going to poo-poo it. I’ve lost the ability to care what people think.”
Auriemma said this was one of the titles he was most proud of because of how far the team had come to become champs.
“I didn’t like this team in October,” he said. “I tried to like them. Last year, it was like Barney. I love you, you love me. But I knew it wasn’t going to be good enough in October and November. Little by little, they started to understand.”
NOTES: This was the fifth consecutive season the Irish and the Huskies met in the Final Four. Notre Dame beat UConn in the semis in 2011 and 2012, while UConn won in the semis in 2013 and then in the final in 2014 and 2015. … Notre Dame led by 10 in the teams’ first meeting this season before UConn went on a 16-point run. … Notre Dame won seven of the 11 previous meetings. … Auriemma doesn’t apologize for having good players. “Anybody know who Steve Cauthen is? Who did he ride? He rode Affirmed,” he said. “Anybody know who the jockey for Alydar was? Hard to remember. I have no idea because he didn’t win any of those three races.”