NEW ORLEANS — Coach Geno Auriemma and Connecticut are back on top. With freshman Breanna Stewart leading the way, it might be a while before they relinquish that spot.
Stewart scored 18 of her 23 in the first half and Connecticut won its eighth national championship with a 93-60 rout of Louisville on Tuesday night. It was the most lopsided victory in a title game.
The title tied Auriemma and the Huskies (35-4) with Pat Summitt and Tennessee for the most in women's basketball history.
It might not take long for Auriemma to pass Summitt the way Stewart and the rest of the Huskies played. His prized freshman hit shots from everywhere on the court.
The loss brought ended an unprecedented NCAA Tournament run by Louisville. The Cardinals were the first No. 5 seed to make the championship game, pulling off a huge upset of Brittney Griner and top seed Baylor in the region semifinals. Louisville then beat Tennessee in the region final and Cal in the Final Four.
The Cardinals just didn't have enough to beat their Big East foe. Louisville was trying to become the second school to win both the men's and women's championship in the same season. UConn did it in 2004.
Louisville men's coach Rick Pitino, fresh off his team's win in the title game over Michigan on Monday night, sat behind the Cardinals bench, trying to spur on the women's team. He talked to the players at their pregame meal and told them to enjoy the moment and have fun in the game.
It wasn't to be because of the dazzling Stewart, who impressed Pitino.
"This is one of the best freshman in basketball," he said.
Stewart, only the fourth freshman to be named the tournament's most outstanding player, had one of the most remarkable runs of any first-year player in tourney history. She finished with 105 points in only five tournament games — she missed the first-round game to rest a sore calf. It's the most by any first-year player since 2000. UConn's Maya Moore held the previous mark of 93 points.
The 6-foot-4 star passed Moore with a tip-in with 7:04 left in the first half. She scored seven during a 19-0 run that turned a four-point deficit into a double-digit lead and put the Cardinals in a hole they couldn't climb out of.
"We rushed a lot, we started to panic a bit," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "They started executing."
Stewart later swooped in for an offensive rebound that she put back to make it 39-23. The Huskies led 48-29 at the half.
UConn went on a 12-2 run after the Cardinals had cut its deficit to 60-44, and the Huskies easily surpassed Tennessee's 23-point win over Louisiana Tech in 1987 for the biggest title-game margin of victory.
Stewart's exploits are reminiscent of two all-time greats. As freshmen, Cheryl Miller guided USC to a title in 1983, and Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee to a championship in 1996.
These were not the undefeated Huskies of Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash, who won the 2002 tournament with peerless talent. Nor were they the 2004 Huskies, who won with Taurasi and a cast of selfless role players.
Without a true superstar, this UConn team battled through injury and self-doubt and prevailed with renewed assuredness, collective spirit and expectation, depth, conditioning and a relentlessness that made victory in the tournament seem not only possible but inevitable with a resurgence over the past month.
The most rewarding aspect of the season, Auriemma said, was "that it wasn't easy, that they were able to conquer some things that are hard to conquer, which is mostly in your mind."
Just as she muzzled Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins on Sunday, Kelly Faris held Louisville's Shoni Shimmel to 3-for-15 shooting. Meanwhile, she hit four 3-pointers.
"Will she leave as one of my favorite players?" Auriemma said. "Absolutely. They're never going to introduce her as, 'That was Kelly Faris, she was a great passer or a great shooter or a great ballhandler.' Kelly is great at putting you in position to win. That's what she's great at."
Louisville was trying to become the lowest seed to win an NCAA championship on the women's side. Villanova, as a No. 8 seed, was the lowest to win it on the men's side, beating Georgetown in 1985.
The Schimmel sisters, who carried Louisville in the tournament, struggled Tuesday. Shoni Schimmel missed her first six shots and finished with seven points. Jude Schimmel had three fouls in the first half.
The Big East Conference won a ninth national championship.
The conference, which will now split apart, has been the most dominant in women's basketball over the past decade.
And having both teams in the championship game was a fitting end to its current configuration. Neither team will be in the new Big East next season as both teams will be in the American Athletic Conference with USF. Louisville will then head to the ACC the year after.