By Doug Feinberg
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Geno Auriemma and Connecticut are back on top. With freshman Breanna Stewart leading the way, it might be a while before they give it up, too.
Stewart scored 18 of her 23 points in a dazzling first half and Connecticut won its eighth national championship with a 93-60 rout of Louisville on Tuesday night. It was the most lopsided victory in a title game, and it put the Huskies back atop college basketball after missing the title game the past two years.
The title tied Auriemma and the Huskies (35-4) with Pat Summitt and Tennessee for the most in women’s basketball history.
“The fact that I tied Pat Summitt’s record puts you in the category of the greatest women’s basketball coach that ever lived,” Auriemma said. “I’m just thrilled for our seniors. This team accomplished an amazing feat this last month.”
It might not take long for Auriemma to pass Summitt, not with the way Stewart and the rest of his Huskies played. His prized freshman was unstoppable, hitting shots from everywhere on the court to earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four. She’s only the fourth freshman ever to have that honor and first since 1987. Even her father in the stands repeatedly said “wow” as his daughter took the game over and Cardinals men’s coach Rick Pitino, in town to cheer on the Louisville women, called her one of the best freshman in basketball.
“This is unbelievable,” Stewart said. “This is what we’ve thought about since the beginning of the season. And now to be here and actually win it, it’s a great feeling and I don’t think it’s going to set in for a while. I just played really confident and stopped thinking. When I second-guess myself, nothing good comes out of that.”
After Auriemma cut down the final strand of the net, his team carried him around the court in celebration.
The loss ended an unprecedented tournament run by Louisville. The Cardinals became the first No. 5 seed to make the championship game, pulling off the greatest upset in tournament history when they beat Brittney Griner and Baylor in the regional semifinals. Jeff Walz’s team then beat Tennessee in the regional final before topping Cal in the Final Four.
“The run we went on was remarkable and something I’ll always remember” Walz said. “We’re walking out with our head high and proud of what we’ve done.”
The Cardinals just didn’t have enough to beat their Big East foe. Louisville was trying to become just the second school to win both the men’s and women’s championship in the same season and the first since UConn in 2004. Pitino, fresh off his team’s 82-76 win in the title game over Michigan on Monday night, was sitting behind the Cardinals bench, trying to spur on the women’s team. He talked to the players at their pregame meal and told them to just enjoy the moment and have fun in the game.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, the trip to the Big Easy marked the beginning of the Stewart era.
The heralded freshman had one of the most remarkable runs of any first year player in the history of the NCAA tournament. She finished with 105 points in only five games — she missed the first round rout of Idaho to rest a sore calf — the most by any first-year player since 2000, according to STATS.
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