INDIANAPOLIS — The best player in the country fulfilled a promise she made four years ago and helped her team make history, beating her hometown school in the process Tuesday night in the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game.
When Breanna Stewart came to Connecticut as a freshman from Cicero-North Syracuse High School, she stated publicly that she wanted to do what no women’s team had done and win four straight national titles.
The senior forward and her undefeated Huskies accomplished the task with their 82-51 dismantling of Syracuse at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Connecticut (38-0) led 9-0 before Syracuse (30-8) scored. The Orange stayed within seven at 13-6 on a Cornelia Fondren free throw, but would get no closer. UConn responded with a 10-0 run and never looked back.
With Morgan Tuck, a dominant force at both ends of the court, the lightning-quick Moriah Jefferson and Stewart blazing the path, it seemed fitting the team’s three seniors made UConn’s first three baskets.
Geno Auriemma surpassed legendary UCLA men’s coach John Wooden in winning his 11th national title in 31 seasons at UConn, improving to 955-134. To put that in present-day perspective, Mike Krzyzewski, the men’s all-time wins leader with a 970-262 record, has coached five championship teams in 36 seasons at Duke.
Syracuse didn’t have any answers early to pull off what would have been the biggest upset in women’s — if not all of — college basketball history. The Orange press finally broke through late in the third as Syracuse went on a 16-0 run and cut a 33-point lead nearly in half, trailing 60-43 with 2:02 left. But UConn reserve freshman Napheesa Collier closed the quarter with a pair of baskets to give Connecticut a 64-43 lead.
Stewart’s three-pointer with 5:54 left put her at a game-high 21 points and opened a 71-47 lead.
The Huskies, who won every game this season by double digits, improved to 11-0 in title games in winning their 75th straight.
Even without freshman Katie Lou Samuelson, who averaged 11 points before breaking a bone in her foot in Sunday’s semifinal against Oregon State, the UConn offense rolled. Stewart’s jumper at the end of the half gave the Huskies a 50-23 lead.
Junior guard Alexis Peterson, the Orange’s leading scorer with a 16.2-point average, had only five at halftime and shot 2-for-10.
Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams each added nine points for the balanced Huskies offense.
Stewart showed her all-around game in one sequence when she defended a shot, grabbed the rebound and found a streaking Kia Nurse, who didn’t need to take a dribble as she finished with the layup.
Stewart, the three-time AP Player of the Year, became the third player ever to record 200 NCAA Tournament rebounds in her career.