By Doug Feinberg/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — His eighth national championship in hand, Geno Auriemma wanted to savor the moment and not talk about a dynasty just yet.
He had just tied Pat Summitt for the most titles in in NCAA history and wasn’t ready to discuss a repeat. Yet it’s hard to not see the Huskies winning more titles with freshman Breanna Stewart and sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis leading the way.
“We feel like all we can go is up from here,” said Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored 18 points. “We have so many young people and so many people with experience in a national championship game. That’s only going to make us better.”
A scary thought for the rest of women’s college basketball.
Stewart scored 18 of her 23 points in a dazzling first half and Connecticut (35-4) rolled to a 93-60 rout of Louisville on Tuesday night, the most lopsided victory in a title game. It put the Huskies back atop college basketball after missing the championship game the past two years.
Auriemma has never lost the game in eight appearances.
“The only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt and to be there in that spot with her means a lot to me,” Auriemma said. “The fact that I tied Pat Summitt’s record puts you in the category of the greatest women’s basketball coach that ever lived.”
And while Auriemma said he didn’t want to look ahead, he added: “Stewie certainly is different than any other college player that’s playing right now.”
She certainly is.
The freshman was unstoppable, hitting shots from almost everywhere to be selected the Most Outstanding Player for the Final Four. Stewart is only the fourth freshman to have that honor and the first since 1987. Even her father in the stands repeatedly said, “Wow,” as his daughter took the game over and Cardinals men’s coach Rick Pitino, in town to cheer on the Louisville women, called her one of the best freshman in basketball.
“This is unbelievable,” Stewart said. “This is what we’ve thought about since the beginning of the season. And now to be here and actually win it, it’s a great feeling and I don’t think it’s going to set in for a while. I just played really confident and stopped thinking. When I second-guess myself, nothing good comes out of that.”
After Auriemma cut down the final strand of the net, his team carried him around the court in celebration. Summitt, who stepped down a year ago and suffers from early-onset dementia, released a statement through her son, Tyler.
“Congratulations to Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies on a remarkable season and an eighth national title,” she said. “Geno is a proven champion and a leader in our game. My best to him, his family, his team and staff.”
The loss ended an unprecedented tournament run by Louisville. The Cardinals became the first No. 5 seed to make the championship game, pulling off the greatest upset in tournament history when they beat Brittney Griner and Baylor in the regional semifinals. Jeff Walz’s team then beat Tennessee in the regional final before topping Cal in the Final Four.
“The run we went on was remarkable and something I’ll always remember” Walz said. “We’re walking out with our head high and proud of what we’ve done.”
The Cardinals just didn’t have enough to beat their Big East foe. Louisville was trying to become just the second school to win both the men’s and women’s championship in the same season and the first since UConn in 2004. Pitino, fresh off his team’s 82-76 win in the title game over Michigan on Monday night, was sitting behind the Cardinals bench, trying to spur on the women’s team. He talked to the players at their pregame meal and told them to just enjoy the moment and have fun in the game.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, the trip to the Big Easy marked the beginning of the Stewart era.
Sharpshooting from deep or pounding the boards, she had one of the most remarkable runs of any first year player in the history of the NCAA tournament. Stewart finished with 104 points in only five games — she missed the first-round rout of Idaho to rest a sore calf — the most by any first-year player since 2000, according to STATS. UConn’s Maya Moore held the previous mark with 93 points.
The 6-foot-4 star had a performance reminiscent of two of the all-time greats. As freshmen, Cheryl Miller guided USC to a title in 1983 and Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee to a championship in 1996. Stewart accomplished something in her first season that UConn greats Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Moore never did — win a championship.
The Syracuse native scored seven points during the pivotal 19-0 run that turned a four-point deficit into a double-digit lead and put the Cardinals in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
Stewart later swooped in for an incredible offensive rebound that she put back to make it 39-23. The Huskies led 48-29 at the half as Stewart had 18 points; the 19-point advantage fell four points short of the championship record set by Tennessee against Louisiana Tech in 1998.
“We rushed a lot, we started to panic a bit,” Walz said. “They started executing.”
UConn dashed any hopes of a Louisville comeback going on a 12-2 run after the Cardinals had cut its deficit to 60-44. The only question during the last 10 minutes would be whether this was the biggest blowout in title game history, and the Huskies easily surpassed Tennessee’s 23-point win over Louisiana Tech in 1987.
The Huskies beat Louisville by 22 points in the 2009 title game. Louisville was trying to become the lowest seed to win a NCAA championship on the women’s side. Villanova, as an eight seed, was the lowest to win it on the men’s side back in 1985.
UConn hit 13 of its 26 3-pointers, including four by senior Kelly Faris, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
The Schimmel sisters, who really carried Louisville in the tournament, had a rough go against UConn. Shoni Schimmel missed her first six shots and finished with just seven points on 3-of-15 shooting. Jude Schimmel was saddled with three fouls in the first half.
“We made a miracle run in this tournament and will always remember that,” said Sara Hammond, who led Louisville with 15 points.
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