UConn, Notre Dame win Final Four games, set up battle of unbeatens

Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart (30) and guards Bria Hartley (14) and guard Brianna Banks (13) celebrate defeating the Stanford Cardinal during Sunday's national semifinal.

Joshua Lindsey/Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

 

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.”

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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.

Stanford forward Mikaela Ruef sits in the locker room after the second half of the semifinal game against Connecticut in the Final Four of the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament. Connecticut won 75-56, ending the Cardinal’s season.

”It’s been an amazing remarkable experience to have Stanford on my jersey one last time,” Ogwumike said.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer had promised the Cardinal wouldn’t go down easy, and her team never stopped competing. It didn’t help that the Cardinal didn’t take a free throw in the first half. The Huskies had a big edge there too (17 of 24) while Stanford was 8 of 10.

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”We knew that biggest challenge for us was to score,” VanDerveer said. ”We worked hard defensively, had a lot of good stops. Their size, when they went big, their size is really disruptive. Probably more than anything, they have very skilled players, play very well together.”

Thompson, a freshman, hit four of her first five shots for 10 quick points, helping the Cardinal get off to a good start early. The Cardinal led by as much as six a couple times, the last at 22-16 with 12:32 left when Mikaela Ruef banked in a jumper just before the shot clock expired with 5:39 to go.

It was the third sluggish start for the Huskies, who missed shot after shot and had a couple tough shooting stretches in the first half. The first lasted more than 5 minutes and the second nearly 7 minutes. Auriemma said the game played out in the first half like the struggle he expected.

”Hard to make shots unless you’re Kayla McBride at the Final Four,” Auriemma said of the Notre Dame senior who scored 28 to help the Irish advance. ”I thought once we settled in and got our rhythm and I thought we played one of the best games we played all year given the fact we beat a really, really, really good team.”

Once the Huskies found their rhythm, were able to finally get going offensively.

The Huskies scored 12 straight to finish the half on a 12-2 run. Kiah Stokes hit a free throw, then Hartley hit the Huskies’ lone 3 of the half with 4:42 left.

Then Stewart got in the act, hitting a jumper with 3:03 left after missing her first four shots. She finished the spurt stealing the ball from Thompson and finishing the fast break with a layup, drawing the foul for a three-point play and the Huskies led 28-24 at the half.

Connecticut looked like the top-ranked team in the country in the second half, shutting down Stanford and moving on to yet another title game.

Notre Dame 86, Maryland 61

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 Sunday night.

"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.

"We thought the game would be won on the boards and I think it was," McGraw said. "To hold them to four offensive rebounds for the game was amazing. We did a great job boxing out and really limited their rebounds. Kayla McBride got us off to a phenomenal start."

Said Maryland star Alyssa Thomas: "They wanted it more. They beat us at our own game."

The Fighting Irish were without Natalie Achonwa (in brace with a torn ACL suffered a game earlier), but her teammates were more than up to the task, advancing to Tuesday night’s dream championship game.

Notre Dame also befuddled Maryland on defense, forcing the Terps into turnovers and poor shots with ever-changing defenses. Thomas, who finished with 14 points, was constantly double-teamed and rarely got good looks at the basket.

Thomas ended her career as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She had waited four years to make the Final Four. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left, giving her star a long hug as she headed to the bench.

This was Maryland’s first trip to the Final Four since winning the championship in 2006. The Terps were intent on crashing the party and ruining Notre Dame’s perfect season.

For the first 12 minutes they were able to keep the game close. They only trailed 23-21 before McBride and Notre Dame took control with a 10-0 run. McBride had the first five points hitting a layup and converting a nifty three-point play.

Taya Reimer, who replaced Achonwa in the starting lineup, scored her first points of the game on a layup to cap the burst and make it 33-21. The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and the Irish led 37-27 before closing the half by scoring 11 of the final 15 points, including a crisp pass from Reimer to a cutting McBride for a layup – a play often run between Achonwa and McBride.

The first half was similar to the first meeting in the regular season when the Irish jumped all over the Terrapins, taking a 22-point advantage before Maryland rallied.

There was no comeback this time.

"Obviously the better team won," Frese said. "Notre Dame did a terrific job. They took advantage and set the tone from the first possession. We really struggled to have an answer for (Jewell) Loyd and McBride."

Lloyd finished with 16 points and McBride slammed the door. She scored five straight points, including a 3-pointer and a pullup jumper that made it 59-37 with 15:46 left. The Terrapins never challenged the rest of the way.

"I was trying to have fun. The last few games I’ve been pressing a little bit. I tried to do too much," McBride said. "I let this game come to me. I got us out and gave us that confidence but (my teammates) took care of the rest."