INDIANAPOLIS — Four years ago, a young Breanna Stewart came to UConn with the ambitious goal of being the first player ever to win four-straight national championships.
Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stewart followed through on the mission she began four years earlier, scoring a game-high 24 points to lead the Huskies to an unprecedented fourth-straight national championship. She capped off a storybook career with an 82-51 win over Syracuse.
This was the program’s 11th national championship all time.
“It was the perfect ending. I'm not sure what word you can use to describe it. We had a goal coming in as freshmen, and now as seniors we did that,” Stewart said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Stewart added 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in her last game as a Husky and was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player for a record-setting fourth time. Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck joined Stewart on the all-tournament team and as the only players in NCAA history to win four straight national championships. Jefferson scored 13 points and five assists, while Tuck added 19 points and seven rebounds in the final game of their collegiate career together.
The trio is the winningest class in NCAA history, posting a 151-7 record during their four years in Storrs.
“If we were to come to any other school as a group, we wouldn't have done what we did here. … (UConn head coach Geno Auriemma) pushed us to levels that we didn't know we could even reach or play at,” Stewart said. “And once we bought into that, it was a great journey to be on.”
UConn (38-0) wasted no time getting ahead of the Orange (30-8), starting the game on a 9-0 run before Syracuse’s first basket of the game from Brittney Sykes came just under four minutes in. Stewart spearheaded the Huskies’ fast start, scoring 10 points, grabbing three rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Jefferson ended it with a deep contested 3-pointer as time expired to make it 28-13.
After taking a 50-23 lead into halftime, UConn stretched the lead to as much as 33 points with 7:21 left in the third quarter. However, the Orange did not back down. Instead, Syracuse rattled off a 16-0 run to cut the lead to just 17 with under a minute left in the quarter.
“There was a time during the huddle and the game, when Syracuse went on that run of theirs,where we talked about that you can't stumble into the history books,” Auriemma said. “You need to break through the finish line, not stumble across it.”
Freshman Napheesa Collier singlehandedly stopped the Orange’s comeback attempt with back-to-back buckets, including a layup as the third quarter expired to give the Huskies a 63-44 lead heading into the game’s final 10 minutes.
From there on out, it was all UConn.
The Huskies coasted through the final 10 minutes with the trio of Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck leaving the court for the last time with 1:46 left in the game – to a standing ovation. Senior Briana Pulido tacked on the game’s final basket on a corner jumper to make it 82-51, completing the sixth perfect season in program history and its 75th-straight win.
“I don't think I could say it any better. It was definitely a special moment, something that you'll remember for the rest of your life,” Jefferson said. “And we're just so excited that we got a chance to do something that we did. Four in a row is amazing. I'm just happy that I did it with these two.”
Cornelia Fondren led the Orange with 16 points, with Sykes adding 12 points and Alexis Peterson chipping in 11. While the Orange forced 17 turnovers, Syracuse simply couldn’t keep it going long enough to make a serious comeback.
The victory gave Auriemma 11 total championships, passing the legendary John Wooden for the most by a coach in NCAA history. For some so familiar with winning championships, Auriemma still struggled in finding the right words to describe the feeling of winning four-straight with this group of seniors.
“I mean, there's not much that I can say. There's no describing it. And it's a feeling that you have that's indescribable. And I know these guys, they're anxious to get back there and be with their families and friends. And they've created an amount of excitement that the game has not seen in a long, long time, if ever,” Auriemma said. “They did it the right way. And they did it together and they did it with people that they love. And I'm really, really proud of them.”