Tampa Bay shines with women's Final Four

A sellout crowd of 19,810 cheers the start of the UConn-Notre Dame championship game at Amalie Arena.
A sellout crowd of 19,810 cheers the start of the UConn-Notre Dame championship game at Amalie Arena.
Published April 8, 2015

TAMPA — After hosting their first women's Final Four in 2008, Rob Higgins and the staff at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission were determined to make the 2015 event even more successful.

Mission accomplished.

Tuesday night's championship game between Notre Dame and UConn was officially a sellout, capping two days of impressive attendance at Amalie Arena for the national semifinal (19,730) and final (19,810).

"It's incredible to be just the third women's Final Four to ever have four No. 1 seeds advance," Higgins said Tuesday night. "And then you look at the really storied programs, and the following that they have, certainly that's had an impact on the increase in visitors that has taken place. For us to have the largest attendance in the last five years is a credit to those programs as well as everybody else involved that rallies around this great event."

Higgins said the TBSC made a concerted effort to include more student-athletes in the event than just those participating in the Final Four, hoping to give area college athletes first-hand experience in hosting.

"Student-athletes from USF, Saint Leo, (University of Tampa) and others were part of our organizing committee, giving them real tasks, real jobs to be able to learn the inner workings of the major, daunting task that is hosting one of these events," Higgins said. "So we think it's going to serve them well in the future. We think that could be a model for future events as well, not only making sure that the student-athletes that are participating have a great experience, but nonparticipating student-athletes get great work experience."

Higgins said feedback from participating schools and fans has been outstanding. Notre Dame and UConn players were also extremely complimentary.

"I love Tampa," Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd said. "The people here are great. How they greeted us off the plane was awesome. The food's great, the beach, the weather, everything. Obviously people here at the arena are just great; they are very organized. It's just a great feeling. They did a really good job."

Added Higgins: "We feel like we raised the bar in a lot of areas, we really do. We're excited with how everything came off."

UConn's Stewart, Jefferson honored

UConn continued its haul of postseason awards with Breanna Stewart winning the Naismith Trophy as the nation's top player and Moriah Jefferson taking home the Nancy Lieberman Award as the top point guard.

This was the second straight Naismith for Stewart, who was dominant in leading the Huskies to their third straight title game. She also was selected as the Associated Press, U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Women's Basketball Coaches Association national player of the year last week. She is the ninth UConn player to win the Naismith and the third from the school to win it multiple times, joining Maya Moore (2009, '11) and Diana Taurasi (2003-04).

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Jefferson, who averages 12.3 points, led the team in assists (181) and steals (91) this season.

This and that

The Irish came into Tuesday night's game averaging 14.7 turnovers per game. They had 13 in the first half, while the Huskies had just eight.

Connecticut junior forward Breanna Stewart was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four for the third straight year.

The Huskies shot 41 percent from the field Tuesday, their second-lowest total of the season behind the 40 percent performance in an overtime loss to Stanford.

Freshman feat

Forward Brianna Turner may be young, but the 6-foot-3 freshman has already reached a milestone in her short time with the Irish.

Entering Tuesday' game, Turner led the NCAA in field-goal percentage (.648), making her the first freshman since 1996-97 to claim that title. In March, Turner was selected ACC freshman of the year.

"She's had such a great year. She's so coachable. Wants to learn, wants to get better," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She always wants to know what she can do differently and how she can attack things differently. … She's really overachieved for us this year, and we're excited about her future."

A familiar face

The officiating crew included former NBA and longtime college official Dee Kantner. With the exception of the years she worked in the NBA, Kantner has worked every women's Final Four since 1992. Tuesday night was her seventh in the past eight years, 12th overall.

Fixing the flaws

Defensively, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was pleased with what her team did, holding UConn to a season-low 63 points. It was the offensive side of the ball, McGraw said, where the Irish couldn't keep up.

That's an area of play the veteran coach is hopeful to fix.

Notre Dame returns all five starters, and will welcome three All-American guards in its 2015 recruiting class.

Arike Ogunbowale, Ali Patberg and Marina Mabrey — all of whom played for the East team in this year's McDonald's All-American game — will suit up for the Irish next season, making Notre Dame's chances at a sixth straight Final Four that much higher.

"We've got a great opportunity to look at some of the weaknesses that were exposed tonight," McGraw said. "I think those guards can really help us, so I've got really optimistic high hopes for next year."

Times staff writers Kelly Parsons and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.