The No. 1 Connecticut Huskies (37-1) are on the verge of the second three-peat in the program’s history, but must stare down a loaded No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (36-2) seeking its second ever title in Tuesday night’s national championship game at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.
The Huskies and head coach Geno Auriemma last claimed three consecutive championships from 2002 to 2004, and only one other program, Tennessee, has previously completed the feat. Auriemma, now in his 30th year with Connecticut, also stands to equal UCLA legend John Wooden’s record of 10 career titles. Auriemma’s a perfect 9-0 in title games as well.
But the Irish and head coach Muffet McGraw, who fell to Connecticut in last year’s final 79-58, have won 22 straight and make their fourth appearance in the championship in five years. Notre Dame won its only title back in 2001.
With three starters from last year’s team moving on to the WNBA, the Irish remained among the nation’s elite teams thanks to McGraw and her faith in leading scorer and junior guard Jewell Loyd.
“The plays we ran down the stretch were all for her,” McGraw said to the Chicago Tribune. “I kind of wanted to put it all on Jewell.”
Loyd’s 22 points carried Notre Dame past South Carolina 66-65 in the national semis, upping he season average to 20 points per game. Of course Loyd’s had some help from forwards Brianna Turner and Taya Reimer. Turner totaled 17 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks against the Gamecocks, while Remier added 16 points, six boards and four assists to her three blocks.
It was the tightest victory of the tournament for Notre Dame after blasting opponents by an average of 19 points, and hadn’t faced a tighter game since the ACC tournament back on March 7.
Next up is a Huskies squad, powered by junior forward Breanna Stewart, coming off an 81-58 demolishing of Maryland in the national semis. Stewart poured in 25 points and pulled down eight rebounds, and forward Morgan Tuck contributed 24 points and nine rebounds to put Connecticut on the cusp of history once again.
It was the kind of performance Connecticut’s become accustomed to over the years, and especially throughout the season. The Huskies have outscored opponents by an average of 41.4 points per game, and outrebounded by a plus-12.9 margin.
Before last year’s title game, McGraw and Auriemma traded barbs in the media, perhaps drawing away from their players. This year, fences have been mended and Auriemma expressed the respect he has for his coaching counterpart.
"Nobody likes to have more fun than me with stuff when I can," Auriemma said to The Hartford Courant. "I try not to take myself [seriously] … I think that's one of the reasons why we generally play pretty well during this time of the year, because we don't take ourselves that seriously. We understand what the deal is.