This is the third time the Connecticut women have won back-to-back titles.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There’s something about NCAA basketball national championship games this year that agrees with Connecticut, be it men or women.
Tuesday night, the top-ranked UConn women claimed a record ninth national crown with a convincing 79-58 win over second-ranked Notre Dame. It was the first national title game, men or women, involving two undefeated teams.
A night earlier, UConn made the two-team national championship parlay possible with a 60-54 win over Kentucky in the men’s title game at Arlington, Texas. Only one other time, in 2004, has a school claimed both college basketball championships in the same season — and it was UConn.
Certainly, the center of the college basketball universe — at least for this season, anyway — is firmly planted in Storrs, Conn. No other school in the country can claim a combined 13 women’s and men’s basketball national championships.
"It’s something that we live every day," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after defending the 2013 national title in front of a sell-out crowd of 17,519 at Bridgestone Arena. "It’s something that we believe in with all of our heart.
"To have the guys win it last night and for us to win it tonight, I couldn’t be more proud to work at the University of Connecticut."
UConn’s ninth national women’s championship broke a tie with the University of Tennessee and legendary former coach Pat Summitt. UCLA men have 11 national titles, including 10 under Hall of Fame coach John Wooden.
"When you get reminded of it all the time about what it means," Auriemma said of winning nine national titles, "you start to think about what it means. It means we have done something that no one else has ever done.
"… But that’s not the driving force. That’s not what motivates us at Connecticut. We try to do the right thing for the people that are there. If it means winning a national championship, great."
The Lady Huskies have won all nine national title games they have played and gone undefeated five times. This senior class, led by center Stefanie Dolson and guard Bria Hartley, closed their careers by winning 45 straight games, the third-longest streak in program history.
"Right from the beginning, we went into it so excited and so pumped," said Dolson, who had 16 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. "Everyone said we had a lot of pressure on our backs, but we didn’t.
"… We went in there having fun. We were loose and playing great."
Notre Dame (37-1) missed the inside presence of 6-foot-3 senior forward Natalie Achonwa, who was lost for the Final Four to a torn ACL in the team’s regional victory over Baylor. She was the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer.
UConn (40-0) constantly pounded the ball inside to its talented front line of the 6-5 Dolson, 6-4 sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, the national player of the year, and 6-foot junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
That trio combined for 56 points and 32 rebounds, including a game-high 21 points and nine rebounds by Stewart, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Mosqueda-Lewis finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.
"I said something like ‘I thought we were playing the Miami Heat for a while,’" Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said she told Auriemma after the game. "… I thought they were just missing LeBron."
That was especially so down low, where UConn held a commanding 54-31 rebounding edge and outscored the Fighting Irish 52-22 in the paint.
"They just overpowered us," said McGraw, who led Notre Dame to its only national title in 2001. "They killed us inside. Their bigs were just too much."
The Fighting Irish are national runners-up for the third time in four seasons, losing the title game to Baylor in 2012 and Texas A&M in 2011. They were paced Tuesday night by All-American senior guard Kayla McBride with 21 points.
Former Big East Conference rivals, Notre Dame had won four straight and seven of eight over UConn, now a member of the American Athletic Conference, before losing to the Lady Huskies in a national semifinal game last year.
"It’s hard right now to remember what a great season this was," McGraw said. "But I think that’s what we need to reflect back and think about, getting here. Tonight’s game was incredibly disappointing for all of us, particular the seniors."
The Lady Huskies used a 16-0 run to race to an early 22-8 lead. During the stretch, they made all eight of their shots, while Notre Dame missed on six shots and turn the ball over twice.
But from there, the Fighting Irish got hot from the outside, making five 3-pointers — two each from sophomore guards Jewell Loyd and Michaela Mabrey and one from McBride — to pull within five with less than a minute before intermission. A follow shot to beat the buzzer by Mosqueda-Lewis gave UConn a 45-38 halftime lead.
UConn opened the second half on another run, this time pushing the lead back to double digits with a 14-4 surge. A steal and layup by sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson forced a timeout by McGraw after her team fell behind 43-30.
By the time Dolson scored two more inside — the second completing a 3-point play — the Lady Huskies had raced to a 60-42 edge with 14:13 to play. From there, Notre Dame trailed by as many as 24 and could come no closer than within 17.
"You just don’t know how college kids are going to play on the biggest stage," Auriemma said. "You don’t know (with) the pressure of the game or the hype of the game with two great undefeated teams. (You) just kind of cross your fingers and hope they play up to their ability.
"So, I couldn’t be more proud of how we played the entire 40 minutes."