NASHVILLE — Shortly after defeating Tennessee for its first national championship in 1995, Chris Dailey saw Tennessee assistant Mickie DeMoss at an AAU tournament. They had an enlightening chat.
"She was very gracious," said Dailey, UConn's associate head coach. "And then she said, 'We need to change the way we play to beat you.'
"I remember calling Geno [Auriemma] saying, 'Oh my God, Tennessee is going to change the way they play because of us! Can you believe it?' It was disbelief and awe that little old Connecticut would have that kind of impact on Tennessee."
Well, on Tuesday night at the Bridgestone Arena, smack in the middle of Tennessee, the program that currently defines sustained greatness in collegiate athletics surpassed the one it aspired to emulate.
UConn put the punctuation on its fifth undefeated season by blasting Notre Dame, 79-58.
The national championship is the second straight for UConn. For Auriemma and Dailey, the game's first couple, it is their ninth, eclipsing the mark set by Pat Summitt's mighty Tennessee program. And it follows the UConn men's team's winning a national title on Monday, when the Huskies beat Kentucky in Texas. The Huskies also won both men's and women's titles in 2004. No other Division I school has ever done that.
The team is expected to return to Bradley International Airport about 3 p.m. Wednesday. There will be no public event at the airport.
The team will then return to campus for a victory lap through campus about 4 p.m., where the Huskies will ride in an open-air double decker bus and be accompanied by the UConn pep band and cheerleaders. Upon conclusion of the victory lap, there will be a brief speaking program at the Fairfield Way Plaza — in between the Student Union and the School of Business. The lap will start at the Storrs Congregational Church.
The victory extended UConn's winning streak to 46, and ended Notre Dame's at 37.
Senior Stefanie Dolson, whose zest for life and seriousness for the game turned her into one of the program's most beloved players, said goodbye with 17 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, whose regular season was wrecked by injury and illness, completed a star run through the regionals and Final Four with 18 points and seven rebounds.
Breanna Stewart, the sensational sophomore, the national player of the year, the game's new prodigy, added 21 points and nine rebounds.
And All-American Bria Hartley ended her career with 13 points, finishing six shy of 2,000.
The Irish were led by Kayla McBride, their All-America guard, who ended her fabulous career with 21 points.
This wasn't the game that everyone had hoped for — a scrum between two essentially level powerhouses with their own strengths and few perceptible weaknesses.
Nope, with the exception of the first four minutes, when the Irish took an 8-6 lead, this game went to the dogs.
Consider the second half: Down 45-38 at the half, Notre Dame scored just nine points in the first 16 minutes of the second half. The word "stifled" comes to mind.
UConn rolled over Notre Dame's post, which had played so well against Maryland in the semifinals. It shut down Notre Dame's guards, who had made five threes in the first half.
UConn was everywhere that Notre Dame was and everywhere that Notre Dame couldn't get to. And that is why UConn still has never lost a national championship game.
The Irish came in having defeated UConn in seven of their past nine meetings, although one of the losses was last year's national semifinal in New Orleans. Times change, rosters along with it. But it all contributed to an added sense of urgency for programs with everything to lose with just one loss.
And as if the game needed any more edge, the byplay on Monday between Auriemma and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, so reminiscent of past forays between him and Summitt, had added the spurs to the fence that now separates the programs.
The Huskies took a quick 4-0 lead just 45 seconds into the game, but soon found themselves down 8-6 on a McBride basket.
Then came the transforming moment of the half.
The Huskies attacked Notre Dame's back line, now without senior Natalie Achonwa. They used Dolson and Stewart primarily to go on a 16-0 run that lasted for 4:48 and pushed the Huskies into a 22-8 lead with 11:02 to play.
But the Irish refused to relent and used their backcourt strength to cut into the lead. Jewell Loyd, their WBCA All-American, and Michaela Mabrey, one of the best pure shooters in the nation, shot the Irish back into the game.
With two three-pointers from each, and another from McBride (13 first-half points), Notre Dame slowly moved back, cutting the lead to 29-23 before baskets by Stewart and Moriah Jefferson re-established a 10-point lead for UConn (33-23) with 5:09 to play in the half.
The Huskies held Notre Dame to 15-for-35 shooting in the first half to build a 45-38 lead. Five of those field goals were the threes from their guards when all seemed lost.
But the bigger problem, the one that put this game in danger from the start, was the way that UConn's frontline was taking care of business. Stewart and Dolson were a combined 12-for-16 in the first half, and the Huskies outscored the Irish 32-10 in the paint.
Mosqueda-Lewis (14), Stewart (14) and Dolson (10) all had double-figures by the end of the half. The Huskies also assisted on 16 of their 21 field goals with five blocked shots.
Loyd (11 points) and Mabrey (10) were 7-for-16 from the field.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun