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April 10, 2013

UConn women rout Louisville for 8th title

NEW ORLEANS — Geno Auriemma and Connecticut are back on top. With freshman Breanna Stewart leading the way, it might be a while before they relinquish that spot.

Stewart scored 18 of her 23 points in a dazzling first half and Connecticut won its eighth national championship with a 93-60 rout of Louisville on Tuesday night. It was the most lopsided victory in a title game.

The title tied Auriemma and the Huskies (35-4) with Pat Summitt and Tennessee for the most in women’s basketball history.

“The fact that I tied Pat Summitt’s record puts you in the category of the greatest women’s basketball coach that ever lived,” Auriemma said. “I’m just thrilled for our seniors. This team accomplished an amazing feat this last month.”

It might not take long for Auriemma to pass Summitt the way Stewart and the rest of his Huskies played. His prized freshman was unstoppable, hitting shots from everywhere on the court to earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four. Even her father in the stands watching repeatedly said “wow” as his daughter took the game over.

“This is unbelievable,” she said. “This is what we’ve thought about since the beginning of the season. And now to be here and actually win it, it’s a great feeling and I don’t think it’s going to set in for a while. I just played really confident and stopped thinking. When I second-guess myself, nothing good comes out of that.”

The loss ended an unprecedented tournament run by Louisville. The Cardinals became the first No. 5 seed to make the championship game, pulling off the greatest upset in tournament history when they beat Brittney Griner and Baylor in the regional semifinals. Jeff Walz’s team then beat Tennessee in the regional final before topping Cal in the Final Four.

The Cardinals just didn’t have enough to beat their Big East foe. Louisville was trying to become just the second school to win both the men’s and women’s championship in the same season and the first since UConn in 2004.

Louisville men’s coach Rick Pitino, fresh off his team’s 82-76 win in the title game over Michigan on Monday night, was sitting behind the Cardinals bench, trying to spur on the women’s team. He talked to the players at their pregame meal and told them to just enjoy the moment and have fun in the game.

It wasn’t to be, and Pitino was thoroughly impressed by Stewart, too.

“This is one of the best freshman in basketball,” he said in a halftime interview.

This trip to the Big Easy marked the beginning of the Stewart era. The heralded freshman had one of the most remarkable runs of any first year player in the history of the NCAA tournament. She finished with 105 points in the tournament in only five games — she missed the first round rout of Idaho to rest a sore calf. It’s the most by any first-year player since 2000, according to STATS. UConn’s Maya Moore held the previous mark with 93 points.

The 6-foot-4 star passed Moore with a neat tip-in with 7:04 left in the first half. She scored seven points during a 19-0 run that turned a four-point deficit into a double-digit lead and put the Cardinals in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

“We rushed a lot, we started to panic a bit,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “They started executing.”

Stewart later swooped in for an incredible offense rebound that she put back to make it 39-23. The Huskies led 48-29 at the half as Stewart had 18 points. The 19-point advantage fell four points short of the championship record set by Tennessee against Louisiana Tech in 1998.

UConn dashed any hopes of a Louisville comeback going on a 12-2 run after the Cardinals had cut its deficit to 60-44. The only question over the last 10 minutes would be whether this was the biggest blowout in title game history, and the Huskies easily surpassed Tennessee’s 23-point win over Louisiana Tech in 1987. The Huskies beat Louisville by 22 points in the 2009 title game.

Stewart’s exploits are reminiscent of two of the all-time greats. As freshmen, Cheryl Miller guided USC to a title in 1983 and Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee to a championship in 1996.

Louisville was trying to become the lowest seed to win a NCAA championship on the women’s side. Villanova, as an eight seed, was the lowest ever to win it on the men’s side back in 1985.

The Schimmel sisters who really carried Louisville in the tournament had a rough go against UConn. Shoni Schimmel missed her first six shots and finished with just seven points on 3 of 15 shooting. Jude Schimmel was saddled with three fouls in the first half.

With UConn’s victory the Big East conference won a ninth national championship. The conference, which will split apart after this season, has been the most dominant in women’s basketball over the past decade.

And having both teams in the championship game was a fitting end to its current configuration. Neither team will be in the new Big East next season as both teams will be in the American Athletic Conference. Louisville will then head to the ACC the year after.

This was the first of UConn’s championships when the Huskies didn’t win a regular season or Big East tournament championship, making it a little bit sweeter for seniors Kelly Faris, Caroline Doty and Heather Buck.  UConn’s other national championships came in 1995, 2000, 2002-04, 2009-10.

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