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UConn routs Irish, sets up All-Big East final

The SportsXchange

NEW ORLEANS -- In his nearly three decades as head coach at Connecticut, Geno Auriemma has rolled up some amazing numbers while creating a women's college basketball dynasty.

Howver, some numbers clearly are more important than others.

Entering Sunday night's national semifinal, Notre Dame had beaten Auriemma's Huskies seven of the previous eight times the teams played. But after UConn's overpowering 83-65 rout of the Irish at the New Orleans Arena, the only number that counts for Auriemma is eight.

The Huskies will play for their eighth national title since 1995 on Tuesday night in an all-Big East showdown against surprising No. 5 seed Louisville, which dispatched California 64-57 in the other semifinal. The Huskies defeated Louisville 72-58 at home on Jan. 15, and they figure to be huge favorites again.

Just don't tell that to the Cardinals.

"Louisville really thinks they're the best team in the country after the way they've played the last two weeks," Auriemma said. "They probably think there's nobody who can beat them.

"People have issue with me. (Louisville coach Jeff Walz) is the cockiest guy I've ever met. Hey, he wore an Italian tablecloth for a shirt today. But I don't think there's anybody I respect more for his coaching ability than Jeff."

Auriemma said losing seven of eight to Notre Dame -- including national semifinals in 2011 and 2012 -- didn't bother him as much as it may have seemed.

"Once you get here, you're always going to face great teams," Auriemma said. "But for one night -- that's why the NCAA Tournament is so great -- we just needed to be better, and we were."

And the Huskies appear to be playing their best when they need it the most. That certainly was the case with freshman forward Breanna Stewart, who scored a career-high 29 points, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored 16, and Bria Hartley, who added 15.

The Huskies also hounded Notre Dame's star point guard, Skylar Diggins, into one of the worst performances of her career -- 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting, with eight assists and six turnovers. Diggins and Kayla McBride, the Notre Dame backcourt, shot a combined 8-for-35. The Irish opened by missing 22 of their first 24 shots and wound up 22 of 74 (29.7 percent).

After the game, Auriemma had a private conversation with Diggins, a two-time All-American. Diggins finished far below her 17.3-point season average.

"He just said, 'Don't let this game define your legacy,'" Diggins said. "He felt I've done more for the sport than some people who have won four national championships. He said I've done a lot."

The Irish (35-2) had won 30 consecutive games. They lost for the first time since a 73-61 defeat to Baylor in December. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said she was puzzled by her team's offensive ineptitude, which she said wasn't just a case of failing to execute against Connecticut's smothering defense.

Even though Notre Dame got off to a miserable shooting start, it led 26-25 late in the first half until Connecticut went on a 14-3 run to end the half and take a 39-29 lead.

"I didn't feel good about it because we weren't executing anything offensively," McGraw said. "We weren't running our stuff. We couldn't feel good that we were getting good shots. I thought we forced some things and over-dribbled a little bit. We missed some people who were open."

Notre Dame trailed 49-41 with 14 minutes left, but it went four consecutive possessions without a score, and the Huskies pulled away with consecutive 3-pointers by Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart.

Stewart is rounding into incredible form. She was named most outstanding player of the Huskies' regional, and in eight postseason games this year, she is averaging 18.7 points. She had 21 points in an 83-53 win over Kentucky in the regional final.

"Given the stage and what was at stake, I don't know that I've seen any bigger (performance)," Auriemma said. "I know there have been NCAA Tournament games where we have had certain individuals play great, great, great games, but I don't remember a player having a better game in this environment, and certainly not a freshman."

Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward from North Syracuse, said she didn't know what prompted her turnaround from a late-season slump, but she's happy it has happened.

"I'm not sure if I just woke up and started feeling better, but I got back in the gym and started practicing," Stewart said. "And I think Coach has a little bit to do with it."

NOTES: The Big East will be assured of its ninth women's basketball national championship no matter which team wins Tuesday night. That moves the Big East ahead of the Southeastern Conference, which has eight titles. ... Louisville and Connecticut met for the national title in 2009, with the Huskies winning 76-54. ... Connecticut is in its first championship game since 2010.

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