Stewart, Dolson too much for Irish to handle

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – They marked their territory early.

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson feasted on Notre Dame’s defense in the paint. The two combined for 16 of the first 18 points for the Huskies. It marked the beginning of an established residency in the lane in Tuesday night’s national championship.

“They just overpowered us,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said minutes after the game. “They killed us inside. Their bigs were just too much for us.”

At the conclusion of a 79-58 UConn victory, Stewart and Dolson combined for 38 points, 25 points, 11 assists and five blocks. And they managed to stay on the court and avoid foul trouble while logging 77 minutes of playing time between the two.

“We went into it so excited and so pumped,” the 6-5 Dolson said. “Everyone said we had a lot of pressure on our backs, but we didn’t.”

Instead, Dolson and the 6-4 Stewart put the team on their backs. They helped the Huskies outscore the Irish by 30 points in the paint and grab 23 more rebounds.

“Starting a game that way is a lot easier and it helps you get a good flow going,” Stewart said.

The Irish couldn’t challenge UConn’s depth. Only six players entered the game for UConn before the substitutions Auriemma used in the final minutes to give his starters ovations from the crowd.

Dolson, one of two senior starters, finished her college career with a masterpiece. Stewart, just a sophomore, earned her second Most Outstanding Player award in the Final Four.

“My teammates and my coaches are always pushing me to work hard,” Stewart said, “and this season we wanted to chase perfection and we did that tonight.’’

Avoiding slow starts

Even an undefeated team doesn’t have everything go right. UConn showed that with slow starts in the regional final against Texas A&M and national semifinal against Stanford.

The Aggies led by as many as seven points with 13:48 left in the first half. Stanford held onto a six point led with 5:39 remaining before halftime. Neither team could hold off the Huskies, but UConn hoped to avoid having to rally against Notre Dame.

“The focus for us is going to be to just come out and attack,” Mosqueda-Lewis said Monday. “Don’t settle for outside shots from the beginning and try to see how they can guard us off penetration and off the dribble and try to get them into foul trouble hopefully. If that doesn’t work, going inside out is always a great way to get your offense going and develop continuity.”

The Huskies rolled early against Notre Dame with easy baskets inside by Stewart and Dolson, and the Huskies stretched their first half lead to as many as 14 with 11:02 remaining.

Point guard Moriah Jefferson said the issue against A&M and Stanford came from UConn’s inability to hit shots from the start.

“We do all the things that we’ve normally been doing, we just haven’t been hitting some of the shots that we normally make,” Jefferson said Monday. “Our defense has been great and we just have to keep that up.”

It wasn’t a matter of trying, said All-American Breanna Stewart. And there was little doubt that things would go differently Tuesday night.

“We were a little antsy (Sunday) night and started out a little too fast for our own good,” Stewart said Monday. “We need to set a good pace and tempo that we want to play at. We are going to knock down shots. This is the biggest game of the season. We are going to knock down shots.”

Lauding their coach

Geno Auriemma didn’t need to break Pat Summitt’s NCAA titles record to be considered the greatest coach by his players. They may be biased, but his senior starters praised Auriemma before Tuesday night’s game.

“Nine national championships is a lot,” said guard Bria Hartley. “There are a lot of teams that don’t have one. Just the way coach Auriemma and his staff have developed players – to be so great consistently throughout the years, that’s hard to do. Props to him. I am excited that I was able to come here and play for him.”

The progression of Auriemma as a coach in 29 seasons at UConn makes him the best coach of all time in the eyes of forward Stefanie Dolson. He now holds the women’s basketball record with nine championships as head coach.

“You just look at what he has done with this program from when he first started and where he is now,” Dolson said. “He has had teams at completely different spectrums. He has had teams without All-Americans and they still won. There have been teams with a lot of talent that haven’t even made it to the Final Four. He does such a good job and so do the assistant coaches. What they are able to accomplish and get through to their players is something that you respect so much as a player.”

Nothing lost

Breanna Stewart has said she came to UConn to win four national championships. She’s halfway there after Tuesday night. On Monday, she admitted a loss against the Irish would be nothing short of a disappointment.

“We are 39-0 right now, but this is a game we have been wanting to play all season,” Stewart said. “If we do not meet our goals and expectations, we are all going to go home disappointed.”

Lining up across from Notre Dame added just a little bit of motivation. She knows what a loss to the Irish feels like.

“I have lost four times in my career, and three of those have been to Notre Dame,” Stewart. “When you can count them on one hand, you are going to remember every one of those losses.”

Connecticut's Breanna Stewart, left, was too much for Kayla McBride and Notre Dame during Tuesday's national championship game. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)