INDIANAPOLIS – From the moment she arrived to play basketball for Connecticut four years ago, Breanna Stewart aimed to set herself apart from anyone in the history of the sport. At the top of her list of goals was playing for the first women’s team to win four national championships in as many years.
Following a masterful performance in Tuesday night’s 82-51 victory over Syracuse in the NCAA tournament final, Stewart not only made good on her unprecedented aspirations but elevated the top-seeded Huskies into exclusive company. In winning its 75th straight game, Connecticut joined UCLA as the only programs, men’s or women’s, to claim four titles in a row.
“It was perfect,” Stewart said. “We talked about it [Monday]. We all wanted to come out, have great games and finish this off the way we started. To play with these guys is unbelievable.”
Connecticut (38-0) also extended its record of national championships to 11, all since 1995 under Coach Geno Auriemma, who surpassed UCLA’s John Wooden for career titles. Auriemma remained undefeated in the NCAA finals in directing the Huskies to a sixth perfect season on the way to their second-longest winning streak of all time (they’re 15 short of their record from 2008 to ’10).
Four players reached double figures for the Huskies, with Stewart producing 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in front an announced crowd of 14,514 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that included NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and former Huskies luminaries Maya Moore, Sue Bird and Stefanie Dolson, who is entering her third WNBA season with the Washington Mystics.
Stewart capped her career as the only player to be named most outstanding four times in the Final Four while beating the school she supported unabashedly while growing up in North Syracuse, New York, a short drive from the Syracuse campus.
Included in the lengthy postgame celebration was Stewart and senior Moriah Jefferson being knighted by senior Morgan Tuck – with a genuine sword, no less – in a playful exchange on the awards stage at center court.
Tuck and Jefferson added 19 and 13 points, respectively, in the Huskies’ 24th straight victory over Syracuse. In winning for the 122nd time in 123 games, Connecticut limited the No. 4 seed Orange (30-8) to 35 percent shooting overall and 2 of 19 (11 percent) on 3-pointers.
Connecticut led by 33 in the third quarter when the Orange embarked on a 16-0 run that made the proceedings briefly competitive again, compelling Auriemma to use a timeout with 2 minutes 2 seconds to play. The Huskies then closed the quarter with four points in a row from freshman guard-forward Napheesa Collier for a 64-43 lead.
Syracuse got no closer than 19 the rest of the game. Senior guard Cornelia Fondren led the Orange with 16 points, and redshirt junior guard Brittney Sykes, a childhood friend of Stewart’s, had 12.
“It’s a feeling that you have that’s indescribable,” Auriemma said while sitting next to Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson on the dais. “They’ve created an amount of excitement that the game has not seen in a long, long time, if ever. They’ve left an imprint on this game that’s going to last a really long time, and I think it’s a blueprint for kids coming after them that if you want to know how to do it, they showed everybody how to do it, and they did it the right way.”
Connecticut owned a 43-27 rebounding advantage and a 36-22 margin in points in the paint.
The outcome became all but a formality when Connecticut opened the second quarter with a 10-2 flurry. Jefferson’s fast-break layup produced the first points, and Gabby Williams made 1 of 2 free throws. The sophomore guard was starting in place of freshman Katie Lou Samuelson, who broke a bone in her left foot early in the first quarter of Sunday’s 80-51 win against Oregon State in the national semifinals.
Sophomore guard Kia Nurse scored the next seven in a row for the Huskies, including a layup with 5:51 left until halftime, and the lead ballooned to 38-15. Stewart scored twice during Connecticut’s run of six straight points heading into the break for a 50-23 margin.
Despite falling well short of an upset of historic proportion, Syracuse departs the Circle City having completed the finest season in program history under 10th-year Coach Quentin Hillsman, a native of Suitland who attended Forestville High School. Among the notable achievements for the Orange included its first appearance in the Final Four and the most wins in a season.
Syracuse also defeated some of the sport’s established powers, including No. 1 seed South Carolina in the Sioux City (South Dakota) Region semifinals and eight-time national champion Tennessee in the region final, during its eighth appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“Not shocked about good they are. Not shocked about the things they did in the game,” Hillsman said of the Huskies. “We were definitely prepared for it. One thing I told our kids in walk-through today, I said, ‘You have no reason to be scared when you’re prepared, so go compete.’ We were prepared, and we competed. I thought our kids left it all out on the floor.”