NASHVILLE — Geno Auriemma battled Pat Summitt for years in the race for women's basketball supremacy. Tuesday night, he passed the retired Tennessee legend in her own backyard.
His Connecticut Huskies beat another rival, undefeated Notre Dame, 79-58 for their ninth national title and second in a row. That moved Auriemma past the eight Summitt won with the Lady Vols. The Huskies have won their last two titles by a combined 54 points.
Auriemma, who won his first title (against Tennessee) in 1995, has nine championships in 20 years.
It also put a cap on another perfect season. UConn (40-0) hasn't lost a game since last year's Big East championship against the Fighting Irish. It's the fifth time in program history the Huskies have completed an undefeated national championship season.
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And it's the second time both the UConn men and women have won titles in the same year, the first being in 2004. Not only are the Huskies the only program to have had both teams in the Final Four the same year four times, but they're the only program to have won both titles in the same year once, much less twice.
"I couldn't be more proud to be part of UConn basketball," Auriemma said.
Auriemma was overtaken by emotion in a postgame interview with ESPN, calling himself the luckiest coach in the world to work with this team, especially the seniors.
"We beat a great, great, great team tonight," 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."
Auriemma, who is 9-0 in national title games, told ESPN one of the reasons for his record is that he usually arrives at the Final Four with the best team. The names have changed during the run of success — a collection of great players, from Rebecca Lobo to Nykesha Sales, to Sue Bird, to Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore — except for Auriemma's.
"Congratulations to the UConn Huskies for winning the 2014 NCAA national championship," Summitt said in a statement. "My compliments also to coach Geno Auriemma for winning his ninth national title. He has accomplished this feat in record time with the help of some incredibly talented student-athletes and staff members.
"My best to each and every one of them. Enjoy the moment and cherish the memories."
The teams traded buckets early and Notre Dame took an 8-6 lead. It was brief, however, as UConn jumped out to a 22-8 lead thanks to a 16-0 run. Notre Dame came back several times in the first half, but got no closer than five. UConn punched back every time Notre Dame rallied and took a 45-38 lead into halftime.
UConn finished them off with an 18-4 run to open the second half.
Rebounding was always going to be key for UConn as Notre Dame (37-1) was without top defender Natalie Achonwa, who tore her ACL in the Elite Eight matchup against Baylor. At the break, the battle on the glass was close, with the Huskies at 20 and the Irish at 18. But UConn ultimately won that fight, finishing with a 54-31 edge.
"We have to remember what a great season we had," Notre Dame Muffet McGraw said. "The best team won today. They played so well."
Sophomore Breanna Stewart, named most outstanding player for the second year in a row, had 21 points to lead the Huskies. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18, and Stefanie Dolson had 17 while also leading her team with 16 rebounds.
"To be honest, we all knew we were going to win," Dolson said.
Kayla McBride had 21 points for Notre Dame, which suffered its largest margin of defeat since a 70-46 loss to UConn Jan. 16, 2010.
Last year when the programs were still conference foes in the Big East, the Irish beat the Huskies three consecutive times before the NCAA tournament. But UConn knocked Notre Dame out in the Final Four.
This year? Advantage Auriemma. History is his.