NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On what started as a night about perfection on both sides, Connecticut proved to be the only unblemished team in the country -- at least as close as there is to perfect on the court.
Connecticut crushed Notre Dame 79-58 on Tuesday to claim its second consecutive and record ninth overall national championship. The Huskies have not experienced a loss between the two consecutive titles, finishing this season a perfect 40-0, a mark only matched by the 2012 Baylor squad. Tuesday’s long-awaited matchup between the two teams that separated themselves as the best in the country this season ended with UConn making a loud statement that it doesn’t intend to share that distinction. There may be a wide margin between No. 2 and No. 3, but the Huskies showed that there is also a sizable gap between No. 1 and No. 2.
“When you have a performance like that, where your players are really locked in to what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, it was just an incredible effort by the entire team,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said.
“We thought that there were some advantages we had,” Auriemma said, “that whoever was guarding [Breanna Stewart] was going to have a tough matchup, Stefanie [Dolson] the same thing. … As we spread those guys out all over the floor, it left a lot of openings in the lane. And we took advantage of it.”
For the first time all year, Notre Dame was vulnerable. Connecticut took things that the Fighting Irish, a team that beat opponents this season by an average of 25.7 points, usually do with ease and made them difficult.
“We weren’t in rhythm in the offense,” Notre Dame senior Kayla McBride said. “We weren’t making the extra pass, we weren’t playing the way we’ve been playing the past 37 games. I think that’s what made it look so bad.”
Perhaps the Irish would not have been so exploitable if it weren’t for an injury and a big hole in their lineup. Notre Dame didn’t seem to skip a beat without Natalie Achonwa on Sunday, when the Irish outrebounded Maryland 50-21 to reach the championship game. But missing out on the defensive presense, 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game of Achonwa, a 6-foot-3 senior who tore her ACL against Baylor in the Elite Eight, seemed to be a big factor for the Irish on Tuesday.
UConn got to the paint at will early. The Huskies used a 16-0 run to jump out to a 22-8 lead nine minutes in, with 6-foot-4 Stewart and 6-foot-5 Dolson scoring 18 of those 22 points.
“Right from the beginning of the game we went in and took advantage of the size that we had against them,” Dolson said. “Right when we realized what an advantage we had, we just kept kind of pushing it at them. We never really backed down.”
When Notre Dame’s defense would respond by closing in, Stewart and Dolson found their teammates, combining for eight assists in the first half. But Notre Dame hit some big shots down the stretch of the first half, including 10 points off the bench from Michaela Mabrey, to stay within striking distance. For the third time this season, the Irish went into the locker room on the wrong end of the scoreboard, trailing 45-38.
Whatever the Irish had figured out to stop the bleeding in first half turned out to be temporary, as the Huskies ran away with the game in the second half, holding the high-powered offense of the Irish to 20 points in the final 20 minutes. Everything the Irish tried just didn’t work as their undersized interior was exposed by Stewart and Dolson.
“In the second half they didn’t sub, and that was the difference,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “We couldn’t go to the triangle with their starters, we couldn’t play the man-to-man and we couldn’t play the zone.”
UConn’s bigs, Dolson and Stewart, proved to be the stars of the night. Dolson, a senior, had 17 points and 16 rebounds. Stewart, the Naismith player of the year and the most outstanding player of the Final Four, led the team with 21 points on 10 of 15 from the field and grabbed nine boards. Overall, UConn scored 52 points in the paint to Notre Dame’s 22.
“They just overpowered us,” McGraw said. “They killed us inside. Their bigs were just way too much for us.”
Connecticut did what it does best -- make scoring extremely difficult for its opponent. The Huskies came in as the No. 1 field-goal percentage defense in the nation, holding its foes to 30.9 percent from the floor for 47.6 points per game. Meanwhile, Notre Dame came in averaging 86.8 points per game and shooting 51 percent.
Tuesday looked a lot more like a normal UConn game than a normal Notre Dame game. The Huskies held the Irish to 35.5 percent from the field (22 of 62). Notre Dame hadn’t lost by at least 20 points since Feb. 19, 2011 -- and yes, it was against UConn.
“Our defense [Tuesday] was unbelievable,” Auriemma said. “To hold that team to 20 points in the second half? That’s incredible.”
It turned out that the one of the main reasons Notre Dame reached the national championship -- rebounding -- worked against the Irish on Tuesday. While five Irish players had at least five rebounds against Maryland, only Jewell Loyd grabbed more than five against UConn. The Huskies won the overall battle of the boards 54-31 and turned 22 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points.
“We went into it knowing we had this game,” Dolson said. “We had a lot of confidence, and right from the beginning we just never backed down. I think it’s something that every year, every team does when you’re at Connecticut.”
UConn and Notre Dame came in to the Final Four grouped together. The Huskies separated themselves on Tuesday, not only as cementing their place as the best team this season, but as the premier program currently in the sport.