NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Geno Auriemma and Connecticut are back on top. With freshman Breanna Stewart leading the way, it might be a while before they give it up, too.
Stewart scored 18 of her 23 points in a dazzling first half and Connecticut won its eighth national championship with a 93-60 rout of Louisville on Tuesday night. It was the most lopsided victory in a title game, and it put the Huskies back atop college basketball after missing the title game the past two years.
The title tied Auriemma and the Huskies (35-4) with Pat Summitt and Tennessee for the most in women's basketball history.
“The fact that I tied Pat Summitt's record puts you in the category of the greatest women's basketball coach that ever lived,” Auriemma said. “I'm just thrilled for our seniors. This team accomplished an amazing feat this last month.”
It might not take long for Auriemma to pass Summitt, not with the way Stewart and the rest of his Huskies played. His prized freshman was unstoppable, hitting shots from everywhere on the court to earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four. She's only the fourth freshman ever to have that honor and 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.
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.
The heralded freshman had one of the most remarkable runs of any first year player in the history of the NCAA tournament. She finished with 105 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 passed Moore with a neat tip-in with 7:04 left in the first half and wound up with 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 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.
“We rushed a lot, we started to panic a bit,” Walz said. “They started executing.”
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.
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 over 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 ever to win it on the men's side back in 1985.
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 remember that the rest of their lives,” said Sara Hammond, who led Louisville with 15 points.
With UConn's victory, the Big East conference won a ninth national championship. The conference, which will split apart after this season, has been the most dominant in women's basketball over the past decade.
And having both teams in the championship game was a fitting end to its current configuration. Neither team will be in the new Big East next season. Both will be in the American Athletic Conference. Louisville will then head to the ACC the year after.
This was the first of UConn's championships when the Huskies didn't win a regular season or Big East tournament championship, making it a little bit sweeter for seniors Kelly Faris, Caroline Doty and Heather Buck. UConn's other national championships came in 1995, 2000, 2002-04, 2009-10.