TAMPA, Fla. - Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson came to Connecticut in 2012 hoping to win four women's basketball national titles. They're now one championship away from making that happen.
It wasn't as easy this time around, but UConn held off Notre Dame, earning its third straight national championship with a 63-53 win Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
Senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored seven straight points down the stretch, and juniors Jefferson and Stewart led the Huskies to their third straight title -- and second straight over the Fighting Irish -- giving UConn (38-1) and coach Geno Auriemma their 10th title since 1995.
"Obviously, it's incredibly rewarding to be able to do what we did," said Auriemma, who joined UCLA men's coach John Wooden as the only NCAA basketball coaches with 10 national titles. "It was really hard to do it. We knew playing Notre Dame was going to be really, really difficult. It was everything we thought it was going to be."
Women's college basketball's best rivalry didn't disappoint -- Notre Dame (36-3) wouldn't go away, pulling within six points with 5:30 to play. But Mosqueda-Lewis hit a huge three, then followed with two more baskets for a 63-50 lead with 2:21 to play. Notre Dame hit just one of their final eight shots.
"Every time we were challenged, we responded," Auriemma said. "I'm happy for K that she got to do that. I'm glad the buckets K made down the stretch were the difference in the game."
Stewart, honored as the Naismith Player of the Year and then as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for the third straight year, had eight points and a game-high 15 rebounds, while Jefferson had 15 points, including three three-pointers. Mosqueda-Lewis finished with 15 points.
Notre Dame, which had lost its last three games to UConn by at least 18 points, started the second half with a spark, getting a three-pointer from guard Michaela Mabrey to cut the Huskies' lead to 31-26. But UConn answered with a 7-0 run, including four points from freshman guard Kia Nurse.
Notre Dame had its own freshman step up in forward Brianna Turner, who missed the first meeting with UConn with a shoulder injury. Turner was held scoreless in the opening half, then scored 14 points in the second half, getting 10 rebounds for a double-double.
"We've got every [starter] back, but there's no guarantees that we could get back here," coach Muffet McGraw said after the game. "It's going to take a lot of work, and we've got three All-American guards coming in. We've got a great opportunity to look at some of the weaknesses that were exposed tonight . . . I've got really optimistic, high hopes for next year."
Notre Dame has been to the last five Final Fours, but came up empty all five times. They beat UConn in the semifinals in 2011 and 2012, losing to Texas A&M and Baylor in the finals, then lost to the Huskies in each of the last three seasons.