TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies now stand one win away from a third straight championship and matching another vaunted milestone.
Breanna Stewart scored 25 points and Morgan Tuck added 24 to lead UConn to an 81-58 win over Maryland on Sunday night in the Final Four.
UConn will face a familiar foe stands for the title Tuesday night, Notre Dame — a rematch of last season’s championship game.
“Every time we play Notre Dame, it’s something. I just have a lot of respect for what they’ve been able to do,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They’ve got a heck of a team and their team has gotten a lot better as the season has gone on. Jewell’s a great player, obviously, but all their other players have gotten significantly better since the beginning of the season.”
The Huskies are 9-0 in title games and a victory over the Irish would tie Auriemma with vaunted UCLA men’s coach John Wooden for the most all-time with 10. It would also be the second three-peat for UConn, which won three straight championships from 2002-04. The last two titles of that run came against Tennessee, marking the only other time in NCAA Tournament history that the same teams met in back-to-back championship games.
Making the Final Four seems like a rite of spring lately for the Huskies (37-1). They have appeared in the last eight national semifinals.
UConn had cruised through this year’s tournament, but Maryland coach Brenda Frese said her team wouldn’t be intimidated by the Huskies.
“I think the biggest thing against Maryland is they can break you down with their guard play, and then they’re so big inside,” Auriemma said. “If you make a mistake on their guards, you’ve got the big guys to deal with. We needed to try and make sure that we only gave up one thing, that we didn’t give up both. So we tried to concentrate on taking away their 3s, which they’re really good at. And then try to create some mismatches on this end with Tuck and Stewie because I thought that’s where we had the advantage.”
The Terrapins took it right at them from the start, hanging with UConn for the first 10 minutes. Maryland only trailed 22-19 before UConn scored seven straight points capped by Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ 3-pointer that made it a 10-point game. Maryland (34-3) didn’t back down and pulled within 39-33 on Lexie Brown’s 3-pointer with 1:52 left in the half.
Then Tuck took over.
She scored the final five points of the half to give the Huskies a double-digit advantage going into the break. Tuck started the second half with another 3 as UConn scored the first nine points to break the game open. Her layup capped the burst and gave UConn a 53-33 advantage, essentially putting the game out reach.
“Tuck was a big time X-factor for them tonight,” Frese said. “The stat line of Kaleena, she hits one three but gives seven assists. goes into facilitator, get everyone else going.”
The redshirt sophomore missed last season’s championship run while she was recovering from microfracture surgery on her right knee that allowed her to only play in eight games. She made her presence felt on the game’s biggest stage, finishing just two points short of her career high.
“It means a lot, to be out there and actually contribute and make an impact,” Tuck said. “That’s why I came here. To really be doing it, it’s a great feeling.”
The loss ended a school-record 28-game winning streak for Maryland, which hasn’t won in its four meetings with the Huskies.
Brionna Jones scored 14 points and Lexie Brown added 12 to lead the Terrapins, who cruised through the Big Ten in their inaugural season in the conference going undefeated.
Brown had some extra support at the game as her father, former NBA slam dunk champion Dee Brown was in attendance. He is an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings and was able to skip their game Sunday and see his daughter play.
He was sitting near former Celtics teammate Pervis Ellison, whose daughter Aja also plays for the Terrapins. Former NFL star Donovan McNabb was also in the crowd cheering on his niece Kia Nurse, who is a freshman at UConn.
The former athletes weren’t the only stars at the game. Three-time Academy Award nominee Tom Cruise was sitting in a suite, though it wasn’t clear who he was rooting for.
Not that it mattered to Stewart.
“No. Where was he? Oh, my gosh,” she gushed after the game. “I didn’t even get to meet him.”
Maybe he’ll be back Tuesday night.
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