Perfection: UConn’s Stewart leaves legacy as unparalleled winner
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INDIANAPOLIS — There were no Kris Jenkins or Marcus Paige moments tonight, no Ryan Arcidiacono hearing “Arch! Arch! Arch!” and flipping the ball back to his trail shooter for the shining moments of all shining moments. No, this was a clinical Connecticut victory, a cold-blooded dissection of Syracuse, which had a remarkable run to the final before getting eaten by a basketball Godzilla.
UConn is the champion of women’s basketball again in an 82–51 rout, but this one came with plenty of notables: The win vaulted the UConn senior class of Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck to 151 career wins (and just five losses), the most victories for any class in the history of women’s basketball. The trio also ran the table in the NCAA tournament with 24 consecutive wins, a record that can only be matched but never topped. Oh, yes, there was also this: UConn coach Geno Auriemma won his 11th career national title, eclipsing legendary UCLA men’s coach John Wooden by one.
Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck were pulled by Auriemma with 1:46 left in the game and UConn up by 29. They shared a group hug as they walked off the court, then another with their coaches. At game’s end, they sprinted onto the floor together, and backup guard Saniya Chong leaped into Stewart’s arms. The Big Three combined for 56 of UConn’s 82 points and Stewart finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three three-pointers. For the fourth consecutive title game, Stewart was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, yet another record that can only be matched. “They’ve left an imprint on this game that’s going to last for a really long time,” Auriemma said. “It’s a blueprint for the kids coming after them that if you want to know how to do it, they showed everybody how to do it and they did the right way.”
Upon arriving at Storrs, Conn., in the summer of 2012, Stewart told Auriemma that one of the reasons she chose to play at Connecticut was that she wanted to win four national championships. She soon made that conversation public. As great as Cheryl Miller, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Maya Moore or any of the sport’s other transcendent players were during their college careers, none won four titles in a row. Let the debate begin if Stewart is the greatest women’s player of all time—the best college player I’ve covered remains Moore—but Stewart cinched the title of the greatest winner on Tuesday Night at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It did not take Stewart long to impose her will on her final college game. Less than three minutes after the tip, she had a highlight film block of Syracuse junior guard and close friend Brittney Sykes, and on the resulting transition up the court, Jefferson found Stewart for the game’s first three-pointer. Perhaps Stewart’s most impressive play in a very impressive first half (14 points, five rebounds, five assists and two blocks) was a bullet pass from her backcourt to a sprinting Kia Nurse, who caught the pass in stride for a layup with 5:51 left.
Beating Syracuse was a fitting coda for Stewart. She grew up about five minutes away from the Carrier Dome, a straight shot south on I-81 from North Syracuse, and on Monday she talked about how she and her father would frequently attend Orange women’s games when she was in high school. Stewart was exceedingly complimentary of the Syracuse program in Indianapolis but also made it clear that it “sucked” that the Orange would not schedule UConn this year to give Stewart a homecoming game. Instead, UConn played Colgate in Hamilton, N.Y., roughly an hour from Stewart’s home. It was as if the Syracuse coaches knew what was coming.
There will be plenty who scoff at the final score, but the debate over whether UConn is good for the women’s game is silly for those who cover it regularly. The excellence of the Huskies has forced others to raise the level of their recruiting and coaching. On Monday, SI.com spoke with Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who said she would be watching the game in South Bend and rooting for conference colleague Syracuse. McGraw believed that UConn’s dominance had a major impact on her own program rising over the past 10 years, particularly when UConn and Notre Dame were in the Big East and played each other multiple times.
“When we were in the Big East, they were the measuring stick,” said McGraw. “Those games really helped us. Having that familiarity with that team, we were not intimidated when we played them. It made a big difference. I think a lot of teams say we can win, but we did win against them and that gave us confidence.”
With Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck (a redshirt junior but expected to leave) moving on to the WNBA, there will be an opening next year for other teams including Notre Dame and Baylor, each rated over UConn in SI’s very-early 2016–17 preseason top 20. UConn will reload behind rising sophomore forwards Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier and rising juniors Nurse and Gabby Williams. There is also highly touted incoming point guard Crystal Dangerfield. But UConn will not be the favorites to win the title for the first time in years.
“We will miss them, but Connecticut basketball will move on,” said associate head coach Chris Dailey of Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson. “We have never been about just one player even though we have had some of the greatest payers in the history of women’s basketball. We are not a team that runs stuff just for one player. We are not a team that revolves around one player. I think that’s what makes the future O.K. We may not know how exactly it will work but we know we will be O.K.”
One of Auriemma’s strengths is that he recognizes coaching limitations. It always comes down to the players, especially if you recruit players who are committed to winning above all. But under his watch, UConn has done a masterful job of recruiting not just terrific players, but players willing to work within a system. When is the last time you heard a UConn player grumbling about playing time or a scoring average? It just doesn’t happen.
“I have always said in coaching that coaches do more to help their teams lose than help their teams win,” Auriemma said. “If you have Stewie, Tuck and Moriah, even if you put them in the wrong defense, they are good enough to fix it. If you give them the wrong offense to run, they are good enough to score anyway. I have just tried all year long just to put those guys in the right position and I think we have done that. The biggest struggle has been to get the other seven, eight guys to catch up to the other three and maybe that is what coaching is after all. It’s the day-to-day struggle to try to make it work. I’m sure there is some other coach saying give me that struggle for the next 10 years. I get that. But what people demand of us is not the same they demand as anyone else.”
They have demanded perfection, and that is what they delivered. Four consecutive championships. A 38–0 season this year. A 75-game winning streak. Auriemma said that prior to the game, he told the players in the locker room that, “This is what you wanted from Day 1. You said you wanted to be in position to do this. Now here we are.”
Here they are, the only women’s basketball class to win four consecutive titles. It is group that will not be soon forgotten.
“It was the perfect ending,” Stewart said. “I’m not sure what word you could use to describe it. We had a goal coming in as freshmen and now as seniors we did that. We did what we wanted to do.”