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By Mel Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Connecticut overcame a rarely performed imperfect half to rally to another perfect finish and second straight unbeaten NCAA women’s basketball title, beating Stanford, 53-47, Tuesday night in the Alamodome.
It’s the first time back-to-back unbeaten seasons have been achieved in the women’s game and first in the NCAA among combined genders since UCLA performed a similar achievement in 1972 and 1973.
Ironically, the Huskies (39-0) also finished as an unbeaten champion here in 2002 with an identical record. The crowd of 22,936 Tuesday night included vice president Joe Biden and his wife Jill.
The Huskies extended their NCAA women’s record win streak record to 78, though it was the first time in the run that their outcome was not decided by double digits.
The outcome was the closest since Maryland’s 78-75 overtime triumph over Atlantic Coast rival Duke in 2006 in Boston. It was the 10th overall title game to be decided by six points or fewer.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who grew up in Norristown, is now 7-0 in the championship game. The Huskies are topped only by archrival Tennessee, which has won eight titles under Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt.
Next up for Connecticut in the history books is a shot next season at the overall 88 straight wins achieved by UCLA and Hall of Fame men’s coach John Wooden.
“There is no company,” Auriemma, also a Hall of Famer, said of being mentioned in the same breath as the Wizard of Westwood. “He has no company.
“He’s a pretty special coach and special guy,” Auriemma continued. “I’m just thankful for this group of kids because I know how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve put into this. I think for the first time this year, they felt a little bit of pressure tonight. I’m just happy to be their coach.”
Auriemma, on Monday, said that the team with the best player is usually the one that wins when it comes to playing in the NCAA championship contest.
That was true again Tuesday night with junior Maya Moore, who was named the most outstanding player, carrying the Huskies back from a 20-12 deficit that existed at the half.
Moore, the consensus top player of last season, finished with 23 points, including 18 points in the second half, and 11 rebounds.
“We didn’t run a single play we had practiced since day one,” Moore said of her team’s play in the first half. “Our offense was completely out of whack and Stanford did a great job getting us out of our rhythm.
“We responded in the second half and knew what we had to do,” Moore continued. “We knew a run was coming and we settled down and hit some big shots. Tina (Charles) hit some big shots and I stepped up and hit some big shots. Now we are champions.”
Moore won the Wade Award as the top player of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association on Saturday while Charles, who had nine points and 11 rebounds, has won all the other individual player awards to date, including the Naismith Award on Monday.
Germantown Academy’s Caroline Doty, who had nine points, hit two three-pointers down the stretch to help Connecticut stay unbeaten.
"For Caroline to make those shots she made, that's just an incredible toughness on that kid's part, because she hasn't made a shot since Biden was a senator (from Delaware), Auriemma said.
"That's why he came to say hi to us. He said, `I remember you making a shot when I was senator."
Kayla Pedersen, who was named to the All-Tournament team at the Women’s Final Four, had 15 points and 17 rebounds for Stanford /(36-2).
Both Cardinal losses were to the Huskies, including one in Hartford back in December.
Stanford was ranked second in the preseason behind Connecticut and the two national powers ran the first-ever 1-2 tandem in the weekly Associated Press women’s poll. The national media panel made the Huskies an ongoing unanimous No. 1 choice in the vote, which got under way in late October.
Sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who led Stanford to a semifinal win over Oklahoma on Sunday, had 11 points and 13 rebounds and received all-tournament honors along with Charles and Oklahoma’s Danielle Robinson to round out the team.
Jeanette Pohlen also was in double figures with 11 points for Stanford. However, 6-foot-4 center Jayne Appel, likely to go high in Thursday’s WNBA draft behind Charles, struggled on her nagging ankle injury with an 0-for-12 effort from the field.
The Connecticut Sun already announced they will take Charles, a native of Brooklyn, No. 1
The combined inept offense by both teams made the 100 total points the lowest ever in the championship, topping the 105 collected in Tennessee’s 59-46 win over Rutgers in 2007.
The combined 32 points in the half was also a new low.
Despite all that, Stanford seemed headed for a shocking upset as Connecticut shot a miserable 5-for-29 from the field in the first 20 minutes. That included a pair of field goals at the outset that gave the Huskies a brief 5-0 lead.
The 12 points by UConn were the lowest ever in a half at the Final Four. The total also matched the Huskies’ worst-ever output in a half that was set in 2006 in a Big East game at Rutgers.
“It was one of the few times I was speechless,” Auriemma said of his thoughts in the locker room. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life and all my years at Connecticut.
“We were so out of it and we just talked about slowing everything down, getting a little better movement, get some better screening, being a little more patient and then Maya just made some huge shots.
“It’s unbelievable. This is just unbelievable.”
Auriemma was relieved that the differential was not wider at the break.
“As bad as we played, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” he said. “And there was hope. There was hope for us. I didn’t know what kind of hope. But there was hope.”
That hope was found in Connecticut’s defense, which helped the Huskies take off on an overpowering 26-7 run from the outset of the second half to regain control.
“We kept fighting, but things weren’t falling,” Pendersen said of the Huskies’ surge against the Cardinals. “We got a little bit extended on defense more so than we should have. They started rebounding a little bit better. And, I don’t know, we needed to make our own run, and we didn’t really do that.”
Moore’s three-pointer with 14:27 left in the game gave Connecticut its first lead since the 5-0 advantage at 23-22 and the Huskies stayed ahead the rest of the way.
“That was a big momentum pusher,” Moore said. “There was a defender right in my face, running to contest it. And I just didn’t think about it; I just rose up and shot it and it went in and everybody had a little bounce to them.
“That's why we’re champions. We rise to the occasion. And we love big-time shots.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer spoke of her team’s inability to mount a huge lead in the first half when Connecticut seemed rattled.
“We wasted a lot of opportunities in both halves,” said VandDerveer, whose team handed UConn its last loss in the 2008 national semifinals. “I thought people were rushing shots.
“Nneka coming off 38 points (in the semifinals win over Oklahoma), this was – it was very physical. And you know, Nneka just – is going to have to learn from this. We needed to have some kind of go-to-playing. And we didn’t have that.”
VanderDerveer had noted going into the game Connecticut needed to be off for her team to have a chance for an historic upset.
Though she got her wish, the Cardinal couldn’t capitalize when it came to the ultimate outcome.
“It’s very disappointing. And it’s very disappointing,” VanDerveer said. “I think what’s hardest is Jayne having such a great career at Stanford and I just – I’m really sad for her to go out with this kind of game when last year, even though we lost, last year she had 25.”
Connecticut beat Stanford in last year’s national semifinals and also beat the Cardinal in the semifinals of 1995 when the Huskies claimed their first unbeaten season and NCAA title at 35-0.
They now have four of the six perfect seasons in NCAA Division I since the tournament began in 1982. The other two were achieved by Texas (34-0, 1986) and Tennessee (39-0, 1998).
Auriemma did not want to talk much about going after the 88 game win streak of the UCLA men.
But he did allow to look ahead at a potential three straight titles for Moore, who will finish her career and probably depart college as the next No. 1 draft pick out of UConn in the WNBA.
“Maya’s greatest challenge next year is going to be that for the first time in her college career she will be the older leader and not have a lot of help, and that’s really going to take a toll on Maya next year,” Auriemma said. “I’ve told her that. We’ve talked about it. And that’s my job to get her ready for that.
“But you know, people are going to expect us to win a national championship because we’ve got Maya Moore. And I would say: Good. So do I.”