UConn overpowers Notre Dame women, 79-58, for national title

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn – Unable to stop a taller Connecticut team inside, Notre Dame was left on the outside in its pursuit of perfection.

Connecticut claimed a record ninth NCAA women’s basketball championship as the Huskies defeated Notre Dame, 79-58, Tuesday night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

Missing star 6-foot-3 post Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL last Monday in the regional championship victory against Baylor, Notre Dame’s interior defense couldn’t stop 6-4 Breanna Stewart and 6-5 Stefanie Dolson. Taking advantage of Achonwa’s absence, Connecticut had a crushing 52-22 advantage in points in the paint against an Irish post rotation that was 6-1 (Ariel Braker), 6-2 (Markisha Wright) and 6-3 (Taya Reimer).

Stewart scored 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting, and Dolson had 17 points and 16 rebounds. When the Irish had Connecticut’s two bigs covered, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis crashed inside to score 18.

“We knew we had a size advantage,” Dolson said. “Losing Achonwa was terrible, but we knew we could really get the ball in the paint, and that’s what we did.”

Kayla McBride closed out her Notre Dame career with 21 points.

“They just overpowered us,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said of the Connecticut bigs. “They killed us inside.”

Notre Dame’s season ends 37-1 as the Irish reached the national championship game for the third time in four seasons, and reached the Final Four a program record fourth consecutive season.

Connecticut’s crown puts the finishing touches on a 40-0 season. The Huskies’ victory gives Connecticut a sweep of the men’s and women’s national championships. The only other time there has been a sweep of the basketball titles in the NCAA Division I tournament was when the Huskies accomplished the feat in 2004.

“It’s hard right now to remember what a great season this was,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think that’s what we need to reflect back and think about, getting here.”

Notre Dame fought back from a 14-point deficit to trail by seven points, 45-38, at halftime. Connecticut regained command early in the second half, using an 18-4 run to build a 63-42 lead with 12:04 left in the game.

Notre Dame’s loss signaled the end of a remarkable run by Irish seniors Kayla McBride, Ariel Braker and Achonwa, whose career record of 138-15 set a program record for victories by a class.

Connecticut took over inside immediately. The Huskies found Stewart and Dolson inside and reeled off a 16-0 run to build a 22-8 lead. At one point, Stewart and Dolson were a combined 12-of-15 for 24 points, and the Huskies owned a 12-point lead, 37-25, with 3:53 left in the first half.

Notre Dame rallied thanks to the 3-pointer. Five of Notre Dame’s final seven baskets of the first half were 3-pointers – two by Michaela Mabrey, two by Jewell Loyd and one by McBride.

Loyd hit a 3 off of an inbounds play with three seconds left on the shot clock to pull the Irish within seven at 42-35. She also nailed a 3 with 27 seconds left in the half that brought the Irish within five points, 43-38. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis hurt the Irish with a putback with two seconds left in the first half to give Connecticut its 45-38 halftime lead.

Connecticut had a 32-10 advantage in points in the paint in the first half. Dolson and Stewart finished with 14 points each. Getting point-blank shots helped the Huskies shoot 57 percent (21-of-37). Notre Dame shot 43 percent (15-of-35).

Notre Dame tried switching defenses, putting different personnel on Stewart and Dolson, doubling up on Stewart, and substituting frequently. The Irish never came up with an answer to stop the Connecticut assault in the paint.

Always able to find the open player off the blocks, Connecticut piled up 25 assists on 34 baskets.

Connecticut’s height helped the Huskies dominate the boards, 54-32. Connecticut had a 22-9 edge in offensive rebounds, and outscored the Irish 18-12 in second-chance points.

“We really weren’t boxing out at all,” said Irish guard Michaela Mabrey, who finished with 10 points. “They’re bigger than us, and I think we tried to make a point at halftime to box out and get a body on them … we really didn’t do that.”

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said his team played an exceptional game.

“You don’t know how the pressure of the game or the hype of the game with two great undefeated teams (will affect players), and you just kind of cross your fingers and hope they play up to their ability,” Auriemma said. “I couldn’t be more proud of how we played the entire 40 minutes.”

Auriemma, who was critical of Notre Dame and McGraw during the tournament, praised the Irish after the game.

“Notre Dame is a great team,” Auriemma said. “For them to have the kind of season they had, and for them to lose their starting center, come here and do what they did, I just can’t say enough about their players and their coaching staff, and it took everything we had.”

CONNECTICUT 79, NOTRE DAME 58

At Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.

NOTRE DAME (58)

min fg ft rb pf tp

28 Taya Reimer 3-5 0-0 4 2 6

19 Ariel Braker 1-2 0-0 4 4 2

29 Lindsay Allen 1-5 0-0 3 1 2

39 Kayla McBride 8-18 3-4 5 4 21

35 Jewell Loyd 4-15 3-4 6 1 13

1 Whitney Holloway 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

1 Kristina Nelson 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

14 Madison Cable 0-3 2-2 3 0 2

24 Michaela Mabrey 4-10 0-0 1 0 10

0 Hannah Huffman 1-2 0-0 0 0 2

10 Markisha Wright 0-2 0-0 0 2 0

TEAM 5

TOTALS 22-62 8-10 31 14 58

3-pointers: Loyd 2-4, Mabrey 2-6, McBride 2-6, Cable 0-1, Allen 0-2. TOTALS: 6-19 (31.5 percent)

CONNECTICUT (79)

min fg ft rb pf tp

38 Moriah Jefferson 2-8 0-0 5 2 4

29 Bria Hartley 4-15 3-5 2 3 13

39 K. Mosqueda-Lewis 8-19 0-0 7 3 18

39 Breanna Stewart 10-15 1-3 9 1 21

38 Stefanie Dolson 8-13 1-1 16 3 17

1 Briana Pulido 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

1 Saniya Chong 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

1 Brianna Banks 1-1 0-0 0 0 2

1 Tierney Lawlor 0-0 0-0 1 0 0

13 Kiah Stokes 1-2 2-6 8 0 4

TEAM 6

TOTALS 34-73 7-15 54 12 79

3-pointers: Mosqueda-Lewis 2-7, Hartley 2-9, Jefferson 0-1, Steward 0-2. TOTALS: 4-19 (21 percent).

Halftime score: Connecticut 45, Notre Dame 38.

Shooting: Notre Dame 22-62 (35.4 percent), Connecticut 34-73 (46.5 percent).

Assists: Notre Dame 15 (Allen 5), Connecticut 25 (Dolson, Jefferson 7).

Turnovers: Notre Dame 13 (McBride 4), Connecticut 15 (Mosqueda-Lewis 4).

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride, right, drives past Connecticut's Breanna Stewart (30) during the NCAA women's basketball championship game Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)