TAMPA, Fla. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies will be the leading contenders to make another championship run next season. It would be an unprecedented 11th title that would eclipse John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and their 10 championships.
If they can pull it off, Breanna Stewart would accomplish her goal of winning four championships at UConn.
“I think it’s really surreal and I haven’t had a chance to even think about that,” Stewart said after the Huskies beat Notre Dame 63-53 on Tuesday night in the title game. “I’ve won three national championships, but said I wanted to win four, you can’t win four without winning three first.”
Stewart, the two-time AP Player of the Year, is one of four starters returning and they will be joined by another stellar incoming recruiting class. She earned most outstanding player of the Final Four for the third time, making her the first woman to achieve that. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the only men’s player to do it when he played for the Wizard of Westwood.
“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.”
Stewart had only eight points in Tuesday night’s win, but she got a big lift from her teammates. Moriah Jefferson scored 15 points and played stellar defense on Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd.
“She should have been the M.O.P,” said Stewart of her classmate Jefferson.
The Huskies do lose Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes to graduation. Mosqueda-Lewis also had 15 points and came up with big plays when the Huskies needed her most.
“I’m glad the two buckets that ‘K’ made down the stretch were kind of the difference in the game,” Auriemma said. “That’s the way she’s supposed to go out.”
Auriemma, 10 for 10 in national championship games, has won his titles over a 20-year span. Wooden won his 10 over 12 years.
“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.”
If Auriemma does win No. 11 next year, Stewart will play a huge role.
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.
“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.
UConn said the Huskies would be taking a victory lap through Storrs on Wednesday afternoon. It will end at Gampel Pavilion, where fans were packed in to watch the title game.
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.”
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 Irish (36-3) trailed just 31-23 at the half, and cut it to five to start the second half. But 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 14 points — eight straight 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 to 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 4 minutes left, and Notre Dame couldn’t recover.
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