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UConn completes perfect season, wins record ninth women's basketball title

NCAA Championship Fin_Cham.jpg

April 8, 2014: The Connecticut team celebrate their win over Notre Dame in the championship game in the Final Four of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Four of Connecticut's five starters scored in double figures as the Huskies women's basketball team matched the accomplishment of their male counterparts Tuesday night, defeating Notre Dame 79-58 to win a record ninth NCAA championship and becoming only the second team to complete a perfect 40-0 season. 

Breanna Stewart led all Connecticut scorers with 21 points, while Stefanie Dolson added 17 points and pulled down 16 rebounds.  Kayla McBride scored 21 points to lead the Fighting Irish, who finished their season with a record of 37-1. 

The win also marked the second time that the UConn men's and women's basketball programs won NCAA titles in the same year, with the first occurring ten years earlier in 2004. The men's team beat Kentucky in the title game Monday night. Connecticut is the only school to accomplish the feat.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma broke a tie with longtime Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most all-time titles, and did it in Nashville, Summit's backyard. Auriemma took out senior center Dolson with a minute left and the game well in hand with the pair embracing in a long hug.

"We beat a great, great team," Auriemma said. "Notre Dame is a great team. For them to have the season they had and lose their starting center and to do what they did, I can't say enough about their players, coaching staff and it took everything we have. I knew if we played great we'd have a chance to win."

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw congratulated the UConn coach when they shook hands after the game.

"I said something like, `I thought we were playing the Miami Heat for a while you guys are just that good.' What a great season, you know things like that," McGraw said. "I thought ... LeBron was the only thing they were missing."

While the names change at UConn, from Rebecca Lobo to Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and now Stewart, Auriemma has been the constant, winning nine titles in only 20 seasons -- including the last two. He's never lost in a national championship game.

"Congratulations to the UConn Huskies for winning the 2014 NCAA National Championship!," Summitt said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "My compliments also to coach Geno Auriemma for winning his ninth national title. He has accomplished this feat in record time."

It was the fifth unbeaten season for Auriemma and UConn and the first time the Huskies went 40-0 -- matching Baylor as the only schools to accomplish that feat. The victory was also Connecticut's 46th straight dating back to last season's NCAA tournament title run. It's the third longest streak in school history -- well short of the NCAA record 90 straight they won.

The loss was Notre Dame's third in the title game in the past four years. After proving to be no challenge for the Huskies during the first 15 years of the rivalry which began in 1995, Notre Dame had owned the series lately, winning seven of the previous nine meetings. UConn though has won the last two, eliminating Notre Dame in the Final Four last season before topping them in the championship game this year.

The two former Big East rivals, who have no love lost for each other, put on a show in a game that women's basketball hoped could transcend the sport. The coaches added to the drama of the game with their verbal sparring on Monday. But it was Auriemma who got the last word again.

Even with the loss, it was a spectacular season for the Irish. Notre Dame lost Skylar Diggins to graduation and changed conferences to the ACC. Neither mattered as they ran through their opponents, winning by an average of 25.6 points while taking both the conference regular season and tournament championships.

The Irish lost senior Natalie Achonwa to a torn ACL in the regional final win over Baylor. Notre Dame wore warmup shirts with Achonwa's nickname "Ace" below her No. 11.

The team played inspired basketball in the Final Four win over Maryland where Notre Dame outrebounded the Terps by a record margin. The Irish couldn't muster a similar effort against UConn and it's gigantic front line. Stewart, Dolson and Kiah Stokes dominated the interior. The Huskies outrebounded the Irish 54-31 and held them to a season-low in points.

After the teams traded shots early on, Stewart -- who earned outstanding player of the tournament honors for the second straight season -- fueled a 16-0 run as the Huskies, who have played stellar defense all season, held the Irish without a point for nearly five minutes. Stewart's lay-in with 11:02 left made it 22-8.

A minute later, Dolson had an acrobatic tip to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis for another layup.

The Irish stayed in the first half by hot 3-point shooting by Michaela Mabrey and Jewell Loyd. Trailing 37-25 with 4:09 left in the first half, the pair sparked a 13-6 run, hitting three 3-pointers which brought the Irish faithful to their feet.

UConn led 45-38 at the half, shooting 57 percent from the field and having 16 assists on their 21 baskets.

The Huskies closed the door on any Irish comeback scoring 18 of the first 22 points in the second half to put the game away. Stewart and Dolson had 10 points during the burst.

"I'm probably one of the luckiest people in the coaching profession because I get to coach players like Stefanie and Bria" Hartley, Auriemma said, fighting back tears. "Yeah, I get to coach guys like that and that's why we can do what we do."

Dolson had promised President Barack Obama at the White House that the Huskies would be back, and UConn delivered.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.