NEW ORLEANS — After all the years and countless milestones, it’s hardly possible for UConn to bounce a pass anymore without making history.
Geno Auriemma, the master craftsman, and his series of master classes, have become to their sport what Howard Johnson was to ice cream.
Things just seemed vastly different in the world once they came along.
On Tuesday night, after being re-routed at times by injuries and, you know, Notre Dame, the Huskies arrived at the place they’ve come to know so well.
This eighth team brought to the national championship by Auriemma did what the previous seven accomplished. It won.
Led by freshman Breanna Stewart, UConn’s newest flavor sensation, who scored 23 points with nine rebounds, the Huskies drilled Louisville, 93-60, to win their eighth national championship.
Stewart was named most outstanding player, just the third freshman and first in 25 years. The margin of victory was the largest in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history.
“Leading up to the tournament it was a little bit of a struggle, despite our record,” Auriemma said. “It was nothing that those on the outside could see, but it was an internal struggle to get connected and to be the kind of team I know we could be.
“But the last month has been everything and more than I could have hoped for.”
UConn is 8-0 in national championship games and here is basically how this one went: With 13:51 to play in the first half, Bria Smith’s free throw gave Louisville a 14-10 lead.
And then it was over.
Over the next 5:25 the Huskies, with classic, clinical precision, sped to their championship.
UConn went on a 19-0 run, starting with a Bria Hartley field goal with 12:54 remaining, and ending with a looping three by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with 8:48 to play.
It was UConn, 29-14.
And in the most literal sense, the torch was officially passed to Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis, who for the next two seasons will try to help Auriemma reach John Wooden’s total of 10 national championships.
Auriemma is tied with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt for the most titles in Division I women’s basketball history.
UConn (35-4) had five players in double-figures. Mosqueda-Lewis, the All-American and UConn’s greatest three-point shooter in history, added 18 points, including five threes. She had nine rebounds.
Kelly Faris, the fundamentally fabulous one, who transformed herself from a team player to a team leader, scored 16 points with four three-pointers. She had nine rebounds and six assists.
Bria Hartley, whose season was seriously uprooted in August by an ankle injury while playing for USA Basketball in Greece, added 13 points.
And Stefanie Dolson, the All-American junior center, who played in so much pain for the last month because of a stress fracture and plantar fasciitis, had 12 points and six rebounds.
“I think many people on the outside may have doubted (that UConn could win the title) because of all the ups and downs,” Faris said. “There were times when I was mad at the world that things were going wrong and I couldn’t figure it out.”
Stewart, last season’s high school player of the year, who struggled so mightily in the middle of the season, became just the fourth freshman in the history of the women’s tournament to be its Most Valuable Player. The last time it happened was in 1987.
“As the clock was winding down I was just trying to figure out who the first person was I would hug,” Stewart said.
In vanquishing the Cardinals, the Huskies ended their rousing tournament run. Louisville, the first No. 5 seed to play for the title in tournament history, beat Baylor, Tennessee and California to reach the final.
“We don’t want to hang our heads,” Louisville’s Jude Schimmel said. “We made history and we are happy about that.”
A win would have given the school a sweep of both the men’s and women’s titles. Only UConn, in 2004, has done that. Louisville men’s Rick Pitino, to be inducted into the next Naismith Hall of Fame class, delivered a pep talk to Jeff Walz’s women before the game.
Pitino arrived about 30 minutes before tipoff and sat in the Louisville cheering section, right behind the bench. He was besieged by cameras and well-wishers, stopping to shake hands with many, including NCAA President Mark Emmert.
The Cardinals seemed to be packing enough emotional fuel to run through three overtimes, if necessary. But after eight minutes, the engine began to sputter.
Louisville came out of the box assertively, with sophomore Sara Hammond (15 points) opening the game with a three. With 14:41 to play in the half, guard Monique Reid, the only remaining member of Louisville’s 2009 Final Four team, scored to give the Cardinals a 13-8 lead.
And that was that.
Stewart was exceptional, just as she has been since the final Big East tournament started in Hartford one month ago.
She drained threes with the gentle snap of the wrist. She soared to tip in an offensive rebound. She was everywhere and seemingly capable of anything. And she exasperated her opponent with the effortlessness of it all.
And while Stewart took over the game, Louisville’s star junior Shoni Schimmel, whose firecracker style fired the Cardinals to New Orleans, struggled to keep up. And she never did.
Her first basket brought the Cardinals to within 41-25 and she was 1-for-8 in the half. She was 3-for-15 for the night, with nine points.
(c)2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
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