BY PHILIP HERSH
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Muffet McGraw wound up feeling nothing but awe.
The Irish coach expressed it while shaking hands with her bitter rival, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, after Tuesday night’s NCAA tournament final.
“I thought we were playing the Miami Heat out there for a while,” McGraw said she told Auriemma. “You guys are just that good.” Again.
The Huskies (40-0) completed their fifth undefeated championship season with a 79-58 victory, utterly overwhelming Notre Dame (37-1) in the second half of an unprecedented matchup of unbeatens in the title game.
“LeBron (James) was the only thing they were missing,” McGraw said.
This was the Huskies’ record ninth NCAA title under Auriemma, breaking a tie for that women’s basketball distinction with former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
Never lost title game
Auriemma, 60, in his 29th season as UConn coach, repeatedly insisted in the past week he had reached the point long ago where winning titles no longer was about him at all and completely about having his players experience the triumph.
“When you’re reminded about it all the time, you start to think about what it means,” he said Tuesday of getting the record. “You’re flattered, and you’re grateful, of course, but that’s not the driving force. We try to do the right thing for the people who are here.”
This was also the second time, following 2004, that UConn teams have won both the men’s and women’s titles in the same year. No other Division I school has done that.
The Connecticut women never have lost a title game. Notre Dame now has lost three in the last four years, to three different opponents.
“They just overpowered us,” McGraw said. “They killed us inside. Their bigs were just too much.”
Taking full advantage of the absence of injured Natalie Achonwa, the leading Irish rebounder and their low-post offensive threat, the Huskies routed Notre Dame in the paint offensively from start to finish and on the boards in the second half.
As Kayla McBride was quick to admit, even Achonwa would not have made enough of a difference to stop the Huskies dominance inside.
“I don’t think anything could have changed to change that,” McBride said.
Connecticut scored 26 of its 34 baskets in the paint, nearly all from no more than five feet. Notre Dame held its own rebounding in the first half, with 18 to the Huskies’ 20 and seven apiece on the offensive boards as the Irish went into intermission behind just 45-38.
But the Huskies had a 34-13 overall rebounding advantage in the second half, 15-2 on the offensive boards.
“We didn’t have that fight,” Irish sophomore Jewell Loyd said. “We didn’t want it. We didn’t box out. We didn’t do the little things right.”
Very physical game
Before the game, Auriemma had said it was impossible to match up against both McBride and Loyd. The Huskies would render one of them, Loyd, ineffective for much of the game, pressuring her into 4 of 15 shooting for 13 points. McBride had 21.
“It was a very physical game, and they just came out and punched us in the mouth,” Irish freshman center Taya Reimer said.
Notre Dame came into the game with the leading field-goal percentage in the county (51 percent.) They shot just 35.5 against a Connecticut team that led the country in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.
“We were sometimes trying to force things that weren’t there,” Loyd said.
Sophomore Breanna Stewart, the national player of the year and Final Four most outstanding player for the second straight season, had 21 points and nine rebounds.
“I think their size throughout the game really affected us, especially with (6-foot-4) Stewart just being a matchup hell for anyone,” said 6-1 Irish forward Ariel Braker, among those who vainly tried to stop Stewart.
Senior Stefanie Dolson, the 6-5 center, added 17 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals and three blocks. Junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had a big first half, with 14 points, and finished with 18 and seven rebounds.
“We didn’t play defense,” Loyd said, “and when you don’t play defense on a good team like that, they score.
“We made them look like the Miami Heat. It was us. I personally don’t think they are that much deeper than us. We just played scared.”
Notre Dame thought it had gotten over being intimidated by Connecticut as it had beaten the Huskies in seven of the previous nine meetings, two in the NCAA semifinals. And the Irish weathered a 16-0 UConn run that left them down 14 midway through the first half to close within five 22 seconds before intermission.
And then it all fell apart.