NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Connecticut Huskies are back in a very familiar position, undefeated and playing for a national championship.
They’ll be going for an unprecedented ninth national championship after Breanna Stewart scored 18 points and the Huskies advanced to another title game with a 75-56 win against Stanford on Sunday night.
It wasn’t easy early, though the Huskies (39-0) did their part in setting up the highly anticipated championship showdown of undefeated teams.
They will square off against Notre Dame, an 87-61 winner over Maryland, on Tuesday night in the title game. It will be the first women’s national title game between unbeaten teams.
“It wouldn’t be any fun if you didn’t beat teams that were any good,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the matchup with Notre Dame. “I think women’s basketball needs rivalries like this, teams that aspire to be great and want to win championships.”
Now the Huskies have joined the UConn men’s team in playing for the national title. The men play Kentucky on Monday night in Texas.
“I think it’s awesome,” senior guard Bria Hartley said. “Our men are excited for us, and we’re doing the same for them. All the fans in Connecticut are really proud right now. Both teams have worked hard this year. Now the time has come, and we want to make sure we finish on a good note.”
The Huskies also won their 45th straight game after overcoming another sluggish start. Stewart, the Associated Press player of the year, missed her first four shots and UConn was up just 28-24 at halftime.
But Connecticut settled down and put the Cardinal away in the second half, outscoring them 47-32. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis found her shooting stroke, scoring all of her 15 points in the second half.
“I think that at times we were a little jumpy and excited,” Stewart said. “Had to settle down and get into right rhythm of the game. (We) went on a run at the end of the first half and shots started falling.”
Hartley added 13 points for UConn and Stefanie Dolson and Moriah Jefferson each finished with 10.
Stanford (33-4) lost its third national semifinal since reaching the 2010 championship against UConn, which the Huskies also won. All-American Chiney Ogwumike finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Amber Orrange scored 16 points, and Lili Thompson had 12.
“It’s been an amazing remarkable experience to have Stanford on my jersey one last time,” Ogwumike said.
NOTRE DAME 87
Kayla McBride seemingly did whatever she wanted, and enjoyed herself while she did it.
The All-American senior guard shed defenders with behind-the-back dribbles and quick cross-overs before scoring. She set the tone, refusing to let for Notre Dame’s pursuit of a perfect season end and her Irish teammates followed her lead into Tuesday night’s championship game.
In one of the most impressive games of her career, McBride scored 28 points to lead Notre Dame to an 87-61 win over Maryland.
“She was truly special,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She was having fun out there and that was the key. She was hitting shots from all over.”
The Irish (37-0) will play UConn, setting up a title matchup of undefeated teams for the first time in NCAA history. It’s the third time in four years that Notre Dame has been in the title game. The Irish are looking for their first title since winning it all in 2001.
“It means a lot as a senior,” McBride said. “I’m so proud of this team. We went through a lot of adversity, especially after losing ‘Ace’. We’re going to go in and look at the film and be ready for the game.”
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor. The entire team wore shirts in warmups with Achonwa’s No. 11 and the 6-foot-3 forward’s nickname “Ace” on the back.
She helped her team warm up, passing the ball and offering words of encouragement.
McGraw, who was The Associated Press coach of the year, was concerned coming into the game about her team’s ability to rebound against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa. Her team practiced all week on boxing out and not allowing second shots.
It worked. The Irish dominated the Terrapins (28-7) on the boards, outrebounding them in record fashion. Notre Dame had a 50-21 rebounding advantage, including a 19-4 mark on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game, shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.