Rebecca Harris | @MsRebeccaHarris
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — With eight minutes to go in the first quarter of Tuesday’s national championship game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, UConn’s Gabby Williams passed to Moriah Jefferson. Jefferson took a brief look at her coach. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma rolled his hands to signal that they needed to hurry up.
Hurry up to score. Hurry up to make history. Hurry up to reach the end point in an unbelievable college legacy.
Jefferson looked back at the net, made the 3-pointer, and 42 minutes later, UConn made history by winning its fourth consecutive Division I women’s basketball championship.
With the decisive 82-51 victory and an 11th title, Auriemma moved ahead of the late UCLA’s John Wooden as the coach with the most NCAA Division I championships.
Auriemma started his college coaching career just three years after Wooden’s 10th and final men’s basketball championship in 1975. Thirty-eight years later, he surpassed a record most thought could not be broken. Auriemma said that rather than reflecting on his own legacy, he still can only think about his team.
“I looked around the room last night and there must’ve been 18-20 national champions sitting in that room, and I just shook my head,” he said. “And it made me start to think about, not so much ‘where’s my place,’ somebody else will decide that, but all I could think about was, ‘I know where their [his players’] place will be.’”
Stefanie Dolson, member of the 2014 championship team who now plays for the Washington Mystics, said it is an honor to be part of his legacy. “I couldn’t have asked for a better college to play with, a better coach to play for, and a better dynasty to be a part of,” she said. “To be that little part of history, those two national championships, is something special and something I’ll never forget.”
On stage after the game, Auriemma again pointed back to his current squad.
“There are three ingredients to this kind of success. “One, two, three,” he said, pointing at seniors Breanna Stewart, Jefferson and Morgan Tuck in succession.
“He pushed us to levels that we didn’t know we could even reach or play at,” said Stewart of the last four years.
Even before the confetti rained down, Auriemma pulled his starters with just under a minute to go and the emotions flowed. The three seniors went down the bench hugging each of their teammates. Every player that came off the court at the end also earned a hug from the coach and a few private words. Sophomore Kia Nurse wouldn’t reveal what he said, just that it was funny. She smiled through tears from the bench as the clock ran down.
With 11 seconds to go, walk-on senior Briana Pulido scored the last points of the game, a 3-pointer in a storied end to her season. Pulido’s field goal possibly earned the loudest roar of the night from the Huskies crowd.
“It feels very special,” she said. “I am really glad to be on a team with amazing basketball players; a national championship team.”
Stewart kept describing what she and her fellow seniors have done as “unbelievable.”
2009 and 2010 UConn champion Maya Moore said that the bonds between teammates often mean more than the wins themselves. “I think the relationships we form are the things we remember more than the championships,” she said.
Over and over again the departing seniors mentioned their special relationship and how much they’ll miss playing together.
“We just love each other. We love being around each other,” said Tuck. “We have so much fun with other off the court and it translates really well on the court.”
The fun and joy was plain to see, as Jefferson leaped into Stewart as she accepted her record-making fourth consecutive Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four award and to much confusion, a mameluke sword.
Auriemma said after the game that the sword had been a gift from the United States Marine Corp.
“I handed it to them. I said: This is the biggest moment of your life,” he said. “So let’s use that as some kind of inspiration for you guys. And figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the U.S. Marines on our side.”
Stewart and Jefferson knelt and Tuck proceeded to use the sword to knight the two.
And thus UConn’s undefeated season ended at 38-0, with a mameluke, tears, a record for its coach and a fourth-straight national championship.