NEW ORLEANS – Geno Auriemma shook his head in amazement. With all the incredible players he has coached, he couldn’t remember a better effort than the one Breanna Stewart had against Notre Dame.
Not with what was on the line.
The stellar freshman scored a career-high 29 points to go with four blocks and was seemingly everywhere in leading the Huskies back to the national championship game with an 83-65 win over the Fighting Irish – their nemesis of late – on Sunday night.
“Given the stage, and what was at stake I don’t know that I’ve seen any bigger performance,” Auriemma said. “I know there’s been NCAA tournament games that we’ve had certain individuals play great, but I don’t remember a player having a better game in this environment.”
The Huskies will face Louisville in the title game Tuesday night, and it will be an all-Big East affair after the Cardinals rallied to beat California 64-57 in the other semifinal. UConn will be going for its eighth national championship to match Tennessee for the most in women’s basketball history.
No team has dominated Auriemma’s Huskies the way that the Irish had over the past few seasons. UConn (34-4) had lost the previous two national semifinals to the Irish and dropped three thrilling games this season to their rival.
Stewart and her teammates wouldn’t let it happen again, ending the brilliant career of Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins. She finished her last college game with 10 points, going a dismal 3 for 15 from the field.
“Once you get here you’re only going to beat great teams. And the reason Notre Dame has beaten us seven of the last eight times is because they’re really, really good,” Auriemma said. “For one night, that’s what’s great about the NCAA tournament, for one night, for just this night, we just needed to be better than them, and we were.”
The Huskies built a 10-point halftime lead playing incredible defense and Notre Dame (35-2) could only get within six in the second half as its school record 30-game winning streak came to an end.
The Huskies and Irish have developed the best rivalry in women’s basketball over the past few seasons, and this game might have been the final chapter between the two with Notre Dame headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Two years ago, the Huskies won the first three meetings before Notre Dame shocked them in the national semifinals. Notre Dame had won seven of the previous eight meetings before Sunday and this one, for once, started slowly. Notre Dame went nearly 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal, missing 14 consecutive shots, and neither team led by more than four points for the first 16 minutes.
Diggins was 0 for 6 from the field in the first half as the Huskies harassed her all over the court. She scored the Irish’s first two points on free throws and didn’t have another point until getting a steal early in the second half and converting it for the easy layup to pull the Irish within 42-35. The two-time All-American tried to do everything she could to rally her team, but her shots weren’t falling and her team was falling behind.
UConn led 50-43 with 12:22 left before Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart hit back-to-back 3s to give the Huskies their biggest lead.