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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Connecticut Huskies are back in a very familiar position, undefeated and playing for a national championship.
They'll be going for an unprecedented ninth national championship after Breanna Stewart scored 18 points and the Huskies advanced to another title game with a 75-56 win against Stanford on Sunday night.
It wasn't easy early, though the Huskies (39-0) did their part in setting up the highly anticipated championship showdown of undefeated teams.
They will square off against Notre Dame, an 87-61 winner over Maryland, on Tuesday night in the title game. It will be the first women's national title game between unbeaten teams.
"It wouldn't be any fun if you didn't beat teams that were any good," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the matchup with Notre Dame. "I think women's basketball needs rivalries like this, teams that aspire to be great and want to win championships."
Now the Huskies have joined the UConn men's team in playing for the national title. The men play Kentucky on Monday night in Texas.
"I think it's awesome," senior guard Bria Hartley said. "Our men are excited for us, and we're doing the same for them. All the fans in Connecticut are really proud right now. Both teams have worked hard this year. Now the time has come, and we want to make sure we finish on a good note."
The Huskies also won their 45th straight game after overcoming another sluggish start. Stewart, the Associated Press player of the year, missed her first four shots and UConn was up just 28-24 at halftime.
But Connecticut settled down and put the Cardinal away in the second half, outscoring them 47-32. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis found her shooting stroke, scoring all of her 15 points in the second half.
"I think that at times we were a little jumpy and excited," Stewart said. "Had to settle down and get into right rhythm of the game. (We) went on a run at the end of the first half and shots started falling."
Hartley added 13 points for UConn and Stefanie Dolson and Moriah Jefferson each finished with 10.
Stanford (33-4) lost its third national semifinal since reaching the 2010 championship against UConn, which the Huskies also won. All-American Chiney Ogwumike finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Amber Orrange scored 16 points, and Lili Thompson had 12.
"It's been an amazing remarkable experience to have Stanford on my jersey one last time," Ogwumike said.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer had promised the Cardinal wouldn't go down easy, and her team never stopped competing. It didn't help that the Cardinal didn't take a free throw in the first half. The Huskies had a big edge there too (17 of 24) while Stanford was 8 of 10.
"We knew that biggest challenge for us was to score," VanDerveer said. "We worked hard defensively, had a lot of good stops. Their size, when they went big, their size is really disruptive. Probably more than anything, they have very skilled players, play very well together."
Thompson, a freshman, hit four of her first five shots for 10 quick points, helping the Cardinal get off to a good start early. The Cardinal led by as much as six a couple times, the last at 22-16 with 12:32 left when Mikaela Ruef banked in a jumper just before the shot clock expired with 5:39 to go.
It was the third sluggish start for the Huskies, who missed shot after shot and had a couple tough shooting stretches in the first half. The first lasted more than 5 minutes and the second nearly 7 minutes. Auriemma said the game played out in the first half like the struggle he expected.
"Hard to make shots unless you're Kayla McBride at the Final Four," Auriemma said of the Notre Dame senior who scored 28 to help the Irish advance. "I thought once we settled in and got our rhythm and I thought we played one of the best games we played all year given the fact we beat a really, really, really good team."
Once the Huskies found their rhythm, were able to finally get going offensively.
The Huskies scored 12 straight to finish the half on a 12-2 run. Kiah Stokes hit a free throw, then Hartley hit the Huskies' lone 3 of the half with 4:42 left.
Then Stewart got in the act, hitting a jumper with 3:03 left after missing her first four shots. She finished the spurt stealing the ball from Thompson and finishing the fast break with a layup, drawing the foul for a three-point play and the Huskies led 28-24 at the half.
Connecticut looked like the top-ranked team in the country in the second half, shutting down Stanford and moving on to yet another title game.