Latest title embodies the Geno way
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With every other moniker you could give UConn coach Geno Auriemma -- "The Dominator" or "The Closer" or "The Master" -- you might also refer to him as Cinderella's worst friend. Because once the Huskies get into the national championship game, all the fairy tales are over.
Auriemma's Huskies beat Notre Dame 79-58 on Tuesday night to earn the program's record ninth NCAA title. That passes Tennessee's Pat Summitt, who won her eighth and final title in 2008. UConn finished this season 40-0, and the big-time kid, sophomore Breanna Stewart, is now 2-for-2 in being named the Women's Final Four's most outstanding player.
Auriemma's record in the final is 9-0. No matter the opponent, no matter what adversity his team might have faced during the season, Auriemma always has his Huskies ready for the last game.
"I think that we were confident, but we weren't underestimating Notre Dame at all," said Stewart, who had 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists. "But we knew if we came and got contributions from everyone, it was going to be hard to stop us."
Hard? It looked pretty much impossible on this night for the Irish. If you were hoping for a "Win One for the Gipper" game from Notre Dame with senior center Natalie Achonwa out injured ... sorry, that script never got in front of the cameras.
And the snippiness of Monday's news conferences wasn't part of the narrative Tuesday, either. Auriemma complimented the Irish for battling without a key player. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of the Huskies, "They just overpowered us."
UConn started well and allowed a mild Irish run in the first half, after which the Huskies led 45-38. But UConn spent the second half taking any drama out of the question of which team's pursuit of perfection would end well.
Despite their 37-0 record coming in, the Irish were a decided underdog without Achonwa. And underdogs never seem able to spin magic against the Huskies, at least not when a title is on the line.
"Congratulations to the UConn Huskies for winning the 2014 national championship!" Summitt, now the coach emeritus at Tennessee, said in a statement. "My compliments also to coach Geno Auriemma for winning his ninth national title. He has accomplished this feat in record time, with the help of some incredibly talented student-athletes and staff members. My best to each and every one of them! Enjoy the moment and cherish the memories."
Let's stack up what else Tuesday's victory means historically: It secured the program's fifth perfect season; no other women's team in the NCAA era has more than one. It's the Huskies' fourth title in the past six seasons. UConn also had a stretch ending a decade ago when it won four titles in five seasons. Talk about compulsive hoarders.
The names of the UConn players change, but their attention to detail does not. And that insistence on following the process goes all the way back to when Auriemma and assistant Chris Dailey took over at UConn in 1985. Were they in sync from the start?
"Absolutely," Dailey said. "We agreed completely about that. Our personalities are totally different, but the baseline is the same in terms of philosophy."
At UConn, there is a way to do things. And that's that. There are absolutes. Everything from how you set an on-ball screen to no jeans allowed when the team goes out to dinner. But it's a benign co-dictatorship; the players often do get to chime in on where they'd like to eat.
Where does this nonnegotiable "mind your P's and Q's" insistence come from?
"Geno and I both went to Catholic school," Dailey said, chuckling. "So it might be that."
But she also mentioned watching Louisiana Tech in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the Lady Techsters were setting the standard in the still-very-young sport of women's college basketball. Dailey noticed the way the Louisiana Tech players carried themselves on and off the court.
"The way they walked into the gym, the way they played, the way they walked out. They did everything like a team," Dailey said.
You can say the same thing about the Huskies. And this season, both the whole and sum of the parts were equally good. Tuesday, UConn's defense was outstanding; the Huskies ruled on the boards, and even a rough shooting night from the backcourt didn't hurt them at all.
Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson were a combined 6-of-23 from the field? So what. Stewart was 10-of-15. Stefanie Dolson had 17 points and 16 rebounds. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 18 points.
Playing UConn this season was a lot like hitting a tennis ball against a wall. Eventually, you're going to miss. The wall won't. And that's despite the fact that UConn had injury issues, including losing Morgan Tuck and being without Mosqueda-Lewis for stretches because of elbow injuries and mononucleosis.
"We had a lot of expectations," Dolson said of returning most of the key players from last year's NCAA title team. "Some teams can kind of fold under that. But here at Connecticut, once there is pressure and expectations, you want to prove to people why you are the best team in the country."
UConn has had amazing individual stars who have fit in, and not clashed, with that team-first mantra. From Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti in 1995, to Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi in the early 2000s, to Tina Charles and Maya Moore in the latter part of the decade.
To Stewart, UConn's current superstar, who knows her Huskies history.
"I think it does make it special, because you think of all the people who came ahead of you and what they've done," Stewart said. "I'm going to be able to have my name put down with the other names associated with this program, and that's exciting. It's almost like we're competing with past teams."
Indeed, it can be a fun debate for fans to rank UConn's perfect teams, and the championship squads overall. To Auriemma, though, they are all remarkable in their own way.
The Ninth Symphony was Beethoven's final completed work, and is considered his masterpiece. But for Auriemma, who just turned 60 in March, title No. 9 may well be just another milestone.
Auriemma is not that big on memorabilia. There are rings and watches he has been given for titles, but those baubles don't really mean anything to him. What really matters are the championship images -- those he will always have in his head, and the tangible ones captured in photographs.
"I have pictures of every national championship team," he said. "And that's the first thing you see when you come in our office."
Considering that UConn now has nine titles, there really can't be much wall space left for anything else.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UConn beat Notre Dame 79-58 to cap a 40-0 season to win it second consecutive NCAA title and record ninth championship overall.