By Rebecca Harris | @MsRebeccaHarris
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Oregon State held UConn star senior Breanna Stewart to two points in the first half, a feat no other team has accomplished.
Yet it wasn’t enough to stop UConn’s dominance, as the Huskies’ 80-51 victory over the Beavers sent the Huskies (37-0) to their fourth national championship game in a row. The 29-point margin of victory was the second largest in a game in Women’s Final Four history and the largest margin in a national semifinal game.
Oregon State kept the game close at the end of the first quarter, down by only nine points until UConn pulled away for good in the second quarter.
UConn senior Morgan Tuck was the game’s top scorer, scoring 16 of her 21 points in the first half. She had three rebounds and three assists, and her four 3-pointers were a career high. Tuck’s teammates and coach Geno Auriemma praised her after the game.
“It’s hard not to be impressed by the things Tuck did in that first-half run that we had,” said Auriemma.
Stewart, a three-time national player of the year, echoed her coach. “She was playing the game that we all know she can play,” she said. “And when people are not guarding her and giving her the open shot, as you can see, she knocked it in and really started a run for our team.”
Tuck said that part of her team’s greatness comes from each person’s ability to contribute in games when the stakes are high.
“I think it shows how good our team is and that Stewie is the best player in the country, but she has a great supporting cast and we’re able to step up and make plays,” she said.
Stewart scored 16 points and picked up two early fouls, which she called “frustrating.” Oregon State sophomore Breanna Brown said that shutting down Stewart for part of the game was one of the team’s many accomplishments this season.
“Of course we wanted to win but we had a lot of accomplishments this year and we can’t let this moment overshadow that,” said Brown. “We’ll be back.”
While Oregon State played with determination and grit, UConn controlled the paint on offense and defense. Connecticut limited the Beavers to 27 possessions in the paint and only 16 points.
UConn senior guard Moriah Jefferson ended with 10 points, three rebounds and seven assists. Like the rest of the senior class, this will be Jefferson’s fourth shot at a national title.
“It means a lot,” she said. “I’m so happy just to be able to do that with this group of guys. They do a great job of making shots which makes my job easy.”
On the downside of UConn’s victory was freshman guard Katie Lou Samuelson’s injury in the first half. Auriemma said athletic trainer Rosemary Ragle told him that Samuelson suffered a broken bone in her foot and would not return for the second half.
He addressed it with the team quickly and told them to “play on.” Samuelson will miss Tuesday’s title game and it remains to be seen what effect her absence will have. Samuelson had started 22 of UConn’s 37 games this season and is fourth on the Huskies in points per game with 11.1.
After the game, Auriemma was asked about UConn’s domination and how he keeps his team enthusiastic as they make history. The coach said that while it’s hard, he looks for players with upbeat attitudes and appreciation for their teammates no matter how many times they’ve been there before. UConn’s 74-game win streak is the second longest in NCAA history. The Huskies have now won 23 straight games in the NCAA tournament.
He also places an emphasis on not doing anything differently just because it’s the Final Four.
“So we just talk about everything that you’ve done in the last six months that got us here, just do that. You as an individual, everything that you’ve done, everything that you know you’re good at, just do that. And it will be enough. That’s what happened today,” he said.
On Tuesday the Huskies play in the national championship game, hoping to secure their already-impressive legacy with a final win for the team’s seniors.
“We know that we have one game left. We’re exactly in the position that we want to be in,” said Stewart. “And now it’s practice tomorrow. National championship game, Tuesday.”