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 night and this one, for once, started slowly. Notre Dame went nearly 7½ minutes without a field goal, missing 14 consecutive shots, and neither team led by more than four points for the first 16 minutes.
But trailing 26-25 with 3:44 left in the half, UConn started to take over. Bria Hartley, who has struggled all season while recovering from an ankle injury she suffered over the summer, was the spark. The junior guard started the spurt with a 3-pointer and added a nifty pullup moments later to make it 32-26.
After Notre Dame scored to pull within four, Morgan Tuck put back a miss and Stewart hit a 3-pointer. A Kelly Faris layup with 3.9 seconds left capped the burst and made it 39-29 at the break.
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 make it 42-35. The two-time All-American tried to do everything she could to rally her team, twice chasing down Hartley on the break to block her shot, 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 of the game.
Notre Dame wasn’t done, their star freshman Jewell Loyd scoring five points during a 9-2 run to get the Irish within 61-55. That was as close as they could get as Stewart and UConn scored the next seven points to seal the victory.
“Notre Dame is a really good team and they make runs like that,” Stewart said. “It’s how we answer. We went on a run after they cut it to six.”
Stewart was the most heralded freshman coming into the season, but struggled through the middle part of the year. But ever since the Big East tournament she’s really been on a roll.
“Every player, especially young players, deal with things differently,” Auriemma said. “And I think when the season ended, it just let the air out of the balloon and she said, ‘Now I just want to play basketball.’ My God, she was amazing tonight.”
The 6-foot-4 budding star had 16 points in the loss to the Irish for the conference title and earned most outstanding player of the Bridgeport regional.
“It was really impressive to have a freshman have that type of game,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “To come into the Final Four and play with such confidence. You don’t expect a freshman to rise to the occasion like that, phenomenal performance for her.”
The loss ended an incredible season for Notre Dame, which lost only to Baylor before Sunday night. It also left Diggins without a national championship. She accomplished nearly everything else in her stellar career at the school, including helping her Irish turn around their rivalry against the Huskies.
Diggins said she spoke with Auriemma after the loss.
“Don’t let this define my career,” she said he told her, and that “I’ve done more for women’s basketball than some people have done who have won four championships.”
“He just told me I was a good player,” she said. “You respect that coming from such a good coach.”