TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies are a perfect 10.
The Hall of Fame coach joined some elite company in UCLA’s John Wooden after tying the Wizard of Westwood with his 10th NCAA Tournament title.
“Obviously it’s a very significant number because that’s the number that’s been out there and people want to talk about it. I’ll be the first to say I’m not John Wooden and I got a bunch of friends who’d tell you I’m right, I’m not,” Auriemma said. “As I said the other day I just think what we’ve done here in the last 20 years is pretty remarkable in its own right.
“I’ll let the people who write the history decide where I fit in.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Moriah Jefferson each scored 15 points Tuesday night to lead the Huskies to a 63-53 victory over Notre Dame.
It was UConn’s third straight title; Auriemma and the Huskies have won all 10 of their trips to the national championship game. As has become a tradition, his team carried Auriemma off the court after dumping confetti on his head.
Breanna Stewart added 15 rebounds and eight points for UConn (38-1). The two-time AP Player of the Year has saved her best games for when the lights shined their brightest.
She earned Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors for the third time, making her the first woman ever to achieve that. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the only men’s player to do it when he played for Wooden’s Bruins.
“There just hasn’t been a player like Stewie in the women’s game in a long, long time,” Auriemma said. “She might be two inches taller than Cheryl Miller and Cheryl Miller was one of best players I saw. … Stewie’s the kind of player that women’s basketball probably hasn’t seen.”
She stated when she came to UConn that her goal was to win four championships. She’s now one title away from being the first to win four straight. Stewart has been a huge reason why the Huskies have won their three consecutive titles. She broke down on the podium with tears streaming down her face.
“I think it’s really surreal and I haven’t had a chance to even think about that,” said Stewart wearing the championship net around her neck. “I’ve won three national championships, but said I wanted to win four, you can’t win four without winning three first.”
Auriemma took Stewart out with about 30 seconds to play and gave her a big hug. The 6-foot-4 star is the latest in a long line of outstanding UConn players that Auriemma has coached, including Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Maya Moore.
Those players have helped Auriemma win his 10 championships over 20 years. Wooden won his 10 during a 12-year span.
“I just know that in our sport, from 1995 to today, what we’ve done against our peers is as good if not better than anybody else has done in their sport against their peers,” Auriemma said. “I don’t care whether it’s harder in that sport.”
Auriemma won his title one night after fellow USA Basketball Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski won his fifth men’s championship at Duke.
“Our Dad was very proud of Geno and Mike and how throughout their years as collegiate head basketball coaches they have diligently led their student-athletes to be successful on the court, in the classroom and in their lives,” Wooden’s children Nan and Jim Wooden said in a statement.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw had her team back in the championship game for the fourth time in five seasons. The Irish have come up short each time, including the last two against UConn. Notre Dame’s lone title came in 2001.
“It was a great accomplishment to get here,” McGraw said. “Was disappointing we weren’t able to play our game.”
The Irish (36-3) were able to slow the Huskies in the early going and UConn only led 31-23 at the half.
After the Irish cut it to five to start the second half, UConn scored seven straight to open up a double-digit advantage. The Irish wouldn’t go away, thanks to Brianna Turner, who missed the earlier meeting which the Huskies won by 18 points.
She had eight straight points for the Irish in the second half, including banking in a shot from the top of the key as the shot clock was reaching zero. That got the Irish within 54-48.
After the teams traded baskets, Mosqueda-Lewis scored seven straight, including a 3-pointer, to restore the double-digit advantage with just over four minutes left and Notre Dame couldn’t recover.
“I thought the 3 that Lewis hit was critical,” McGraw said.
Turner finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Jewel Loyd had 12 points for the Irish, going 4 for 18 from the field. She missed all eight of her shots in the second half.
The Connecticut-Notre Dame matchup was just the second time in the history of the tournament that the same teams played in the final in consecutive years. UConn beat Tennessee in 2003 and 2004.
It was also the 55th meeting between the top two teams in the AP poll with the No. 1 team holding a 34-21 lead. UConn, which finished the season atop the poll, has been involved in the last five of them.
DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer