NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While Notre Dame and UConn rolled to the Final Four over the past two weekends, Stanford’s perspective shifted.
Stanford kids are smart. They knew a national championship game between the Huskies and Irish was widely anticipated. It would not only be a rematch of former Big East rivals but the first title game between unbeatens in the history of the sport.
The Cardinal slowly went from simple consumer of news to a team that didn’t want to be consumed to make it.
“If we’re going to be someone’s hors d’oeuvres, we’re not going to get swallowed easily,” Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.
But what are you going to do in a world where the food chain is so clearly defined? As badly as the Cardinal tried to avoid it, as hard they worked to steer clear of it, UConn gobbled them up, 75-56, in the national semifinal game at Bridgestone Arena.
And now, here we go: UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0), the closest thing this sport has to cold war, make appointment television when they play for the national championship on Tuesday on ESPN.
Breanna Stewart led the Huskies with 18 points. Bria Hartley added 13 in a game the Huskies trailed in for more than 13 minutes in the first half.
But it was the red-hot second half of junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who didn’t score in the first, that truly put the Huskies into their ninth national title game since 1995. She scored 15.
The collegiate career of Stanford’s All-American, Chiney Ogwumike, ended with a line of frustration and 15 points.
Amber Orrange scored 16 for the Cardinal (33-4). Freshman Lili Thompson added 12, 10 in the game’s first 7:28.
For UConn, taking out Notre Dame will be highly personal, especially if the men beat Kentucky on Monday and win the national championship.
Should the men win, the women will have the chance to create just the second dual championship in college basketball history, matching the feat of UConn’s 2004 champions.
And then, sometime in the spring, White House butlers will be setting extra place settings for an extra-large Connecticut contingent.
UConn has never lost in a national championship game. And if it wins this one, Geno Auriemma will break Pat Summitt’s record for the most in women’s basketball history, and he will break it in her home state.
Auriemma was aware of how Stanford felt coming into the game and wanted no part of being portrayed as an overconfident favorite. He did his best all week to divert the chatter.
“I don’t think (Maryland and Stanford), or anybody, should feel like they’re the extras at the Miss America pageant,” he said Saturday. “I’ve never won any pageants.”
But unlike Notre Dame’s overpowering win over Maryland in Sunday’s first semifinal, this didn’t play out as if only one team had hope.
After the Huskies took leads of 4-0 and 6-2, the Cardinal blew from the blocks with a flurry of energy to take their first lead, 9-8, on the three-pointer by Thompson with 16:07 to go. The lead would grow to 16-10 just under four minutes later on another three from Thompson.
At this point nothing was according to form for UConn. It was just 3 of 11 from the field, and aside from keeping Ogwumike (2-for-5 in the first half) in check, things were sputtering.
A desperation bank shot by Mikaela Ruef with 5:39 to play in the half gave the Cardinal a 22-16 lead. Auriemma was shaking his head, wondering if it might be a sign of things to come.
But then calm arrived. As they have so many times this season, the Huskies went on a roll, scoring 12 straight points and clamping down hard defensively. They benefited from nine strong minutes from center Kiah Stokes, their only bench player at this point with any postseason staying power.
Stewart’s first field goal, with 3:03 left, gave UConn the lead again, 24-22, ending a deficit that lasted more than 13 minutes. The Huskies rebuilt the lead to 28-22 and went to the locker room ahead 28-24 after making five of their final seven shots of the half.
Mosqueda-Lewis, the most outstanding player of the Lincoln regional, didn’t score for the first time until making a field goal with 18:41 to play to give UConn a 32-27 lead. She was 0-for-4 in the first half. But when she scored again with 16:42 to play, the Huskies had their first 10-point lead, 38-27. She scored nine points in the first 12 minutes of the half.
This was the fifth time these teams had met in the Final Four, their second meeting this season. The Huskies, in their second game of the season, beat the Cardinal 76-57 at Gampel Pavilion on Nov. 11, 2013.