UConn talent takes toll on ND as Huskies claim title

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. – On a night when Notre Dame had some answers for Connecticut All-Americans Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck, the Huskies still had two other All-Americans too many for the Fighting Irish.

Behind 15 points from both 5-7 junior guard Moriah Jefferson and 6-foot senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Connecticut won its third straight NCAA women’s national title and gave coach Geno Auriemma a record-tying 10th in 10 attempts with a 63-53 triumph Tuesday night over a hearty Notre Dame team before 19,810 at the Amalie Arena.

Playing in their fifth straight Women’s Final Four, the Irish (36-3) lost for the second time this season and second straight time in the national championship to the Huskies, who ended a 22-game winning streak by Notre Dame while winning their 37th in a row to complete a 38-1 season. Auriemma’s 10th title matches the 10 won at UCLA by former South Bend Central coach John Wooden.

“It was a disappointing way to end the season,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said, “but I thought it was a great achievement to get here. Disappointing in I think we weren’t able to really play our game. I feel as though offensively we never got into any rhythm. I thought Jefferson was outstanding. I thought they put a lot of pressure on the ball and that really hurt us.”

Tuck, who had 25 points against Notre Dame in a 76-58 victory on Dec. 6, managed just 12 and Stewart, the consensus player of the year who tweaked an ankle in the first half, was limited to eight points, but had 15 rebounds in winning the most outstanding player of the Women’s Final Four for the third straight year.

“It’s obviously incredibly rewarding to be able to do what we did,” Auriemma said. “It was really hard to do. We knew playing Notre Dame would be difficult. It was everything we thought it would be. These guys made plays in the second half and I think that shows our true character.”

The MVP honor could have easily gone to Jefferson, who not only hit key shots when her team needed them but also assisted on five other baskets, came up with four steals and made things miserable for Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd, who scored just 12 points, including two after intermission, on 4-of-18 shooting. Jefferson had zero points and fouled out trying to stop Loyd, who had 31, the last time the teams met in South Bend.

“I thought she made things hard for Jewell,” McGraw said. “She was not able to get anything going, and most of our offense runs through Jewell.”

Freshman Brianna Turner, who had zero points at halftime, scored 14 in the second half to lead Notre Dame. She also had 10 rebounds, one fewer than sophomore forward Taya Reimer, who finished with just six points. Michaela Mabrey had nine points and Lindsay Allen eight for Notre Dame.Turner and Loyd made the all-tournament team with Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck.

“We didn’t look for Bri enough in the first half,” McGraw said. “I think we were a little more successful doing that in the second half. (Allen) was having a difficult time trying to find her.”

McGraw also credited Turner for limiting Stewart’s scoring but Stewart, too, used her long arms to block four Irish shots.

For the evening, Notre Dame was limited to 33-percent shooting (21 of 63). The Huskies managed to hit just 41-percent (25 of 61) themselves. But UConn did hit eight of the 23 3-pointers it took, including five of 10 in the second half, while Notre Dame made just 3 of 11, all by Mabrey.

Additionally, UConn forced 17 turnovers, 13 in the first half, and outscored the Irish 15-6 off the Irish miscues.

Despite Stewart’s work on the boards, Notre Dame won the board battle 45-34, including 19-11 on the offensive end.

“I think we kind of lost people in transition,” said Loyd in explaining the first-half turnovers. “We had a lack of communication at times and allowed them to get open shots at times when we really needed to break away.”

UConn took a 31-23 lead to the locker room at the half because Notre Dame struggled with its collective shooting eye and protecting the basketball.

The Irish, who started the game hitting three of their first shots, endured a couple of long aimless stretches and finished the half with just nine field goals in 30 attempts (30 percent).

It didn’t help, either, that the Irish made five turnovers in the final 3:43.

Reimer scored Notre Dame’s first four points, a pair of Allen free throws (her first points since the Oklahoma City Regional championship victory over Baylor) and Mabrey’s 3-pointer gave Notre Dame a 9-6 lead at the first break at 15:55.

But the Huskies quickly tied it on Jefferson’s 3-pointer and Mosqueda-Lewis then scored seven straight points to put Notre Dame into a 16-11 hole at the next media break at 11:53. The lead moved to seven when Tuck scored over Kathryn Westbeld and Notre Dame never got closer than three the rest of the way.

UConn got a scare with 8:04 remaining when Stewart appeared to roll her left ankle and left the floor in considerable pain. But team trainers worked on her and she was back after the 6:43 media timeout.

The second half started well enough as Mabrey hit a 3-pointer from the corner to cut the deficit to five, but UConn got a pair of free throws and a basket by Nurse surrounding a three-point play by Tuck and the Huskies had a 38-26 lead at 17:16 when McGraw called a timeout.

The teams traded baskets over the next six minutes and UConn had a 48-38 lead with 11:17 left in regulation after Tuck, left alone at the top of the circle by Reimer, hit a 3-pointer.

Cable hit a pair of free throws and then drew a charge on Stewart before Allen found Turner to draw the Irish within six, 48-42, with 10:31 to play. Jefferson responded with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to nine, but Turner then sent Stewart to the floor and took an inbounds feed from Allen to cut the UConn lead back to seven, 51-44, that stood at the next media timeout with 7:57 left in regulation.

Turner made Notre Dame’s next two baskets, first scooping a left-handed shot under Stewart after an assist from Huffman and then hitting a 15-foot prayer off the backboard as the shot clock wound down to draw the Irish within six again. But Jefferson responded with a layup and McGraw called another timeout with 5:51.

With Loyd hounded, UConn pulled away hitting four of its last five shots before McGraw called another timeout just 1:45 later as Mosqueda-Lewis hit a 3-pointer and then swished a jumper from the top of the key for a 61-50 lead with 4:06 remaining.

“I thought that 3 that (Mosqueda-Lewis) hit in transition was critical,” McGraw said. “We had just cut the lead to six and we didn’t switch the ball screen. Transition from Mosqueda-Lewis for 3, and now it’s a five-point swing, six to 11, and that was the game.”

NOTRE DAME (36-3): Turner 7-9 0-0 14, Reimer 3-11 0-0 6, Allen 3-12 2-2 8, Mabrey 3-5 0-0 9, Loyd 4-18 4-4 12, Cable 1-5 2-2 4, Huffman 0-1 0-0 0, Westbeld 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-63 8-8 53.

UCONN (38-1): Tuck 4-13 2-3 12, Jefferson 6-15 0-0 15, Nurse 3-10 2-2 9, Mosqueda-Lewis 6-12 1-2 15, Stewart 4-8 0-0 8, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Stokes 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 25-61 5-7 63.

Halftime: UConn 31-23. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 3-11 (Mabrey 3-3, Cable 0-2, Allen 0-3, Loyd 0-3), UConn 8-23 (Jefferson 3-8, Tuck 2-3, Mosqueda-Lewis 2-7, Nurse 1-4, Stewart 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds: Notre Dame 45 (Reimer 11), UConn 34 (Stewart 15). Assists: Notre Dame 11 (Allen 7), UConn 13 (Tuck 7). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 9, UConn 10. A: 19,810.

Notre Dame players react in the closing seconds of the 63-53 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA women's basketball national championship game on Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)