Published February 10. 2014 4:00AM
Storrs - Louisville, facing UConn for the first time since last season's national championship game in New Orleans, pared the lead to five points with the first half winding down Sunday afternoon at Gampel Pavilion.
Then the ball wound up in the hands of UConn's Breanna Stewart. Twice.
Stewart, who was Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four as the Huskies earned their eighth national title, picked up where she left off against the Cardinals.
She hit two straight 3-pointers to push UConn's lead back to nine with 4 minutes, 28 seconds to go in the half, one of them spinning toward the basket and off-balance, and finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots to lift the top-ranked Huskies past No. 4 Louisville 81-64 before a sellout crowd of 10,167.
"She's a special player," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "There's no question she's the best player in the country, in my opinion. We had back-to-back situations where we allow her to pull up (behind) the free throw line and shoot it. She hits back-to-back 3s."
"(In the second half), she had the ball right in front of me one time," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of Stewart, a 6-foot-4 sophomore forward. "I wanted us to use some clock. She jumped up and hit a 3."
Moriah Jefferson finished with a career-high 18 points and five assists for the Huskies (25-0, 12-0 American Athletic Conference), while Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had 13 points and Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley 12 each.
Mosqueda-Lewis hit the floor hard after having a shot blocked with 18.7 seconds left in the first half and went straight to the training room. She returned to the game briefly in the second half, attempting and missing just one shot before returning to the bench. Auriemma said the injury didn't appear to be as severe as the one to Mosqueda-Lewis' right elbow earlier in the year which caused her to miss eight games, but said the more recent injury would be evaluated.
Louisville, led by 18 points and eight rebounds from Asia Taylor, is 23-2, 11-1 in the AAC, coming into the game against UConn with 16 straight victories, the longest winning streak in school history.
UConn topped Louisville in last year's national title game 93-60, getting 23 points and nine rebounds from Stewart.
Auriemma said Stewart is "not even the same person that was playing a year ago at this time," speaking of her ability to shake off a bad play and come back with a great one.
"She scores 'em and exactly when you need 'em," Auriemma said. "It's like a guy who hits two home runs in the eighth inning when you're up 12-3. She hits three-run homers when we're down two. That's what makes her different."
Stewart is leading the team with an average of 19.8 points per game, adding 8.0 rebounds per game, second only to Dolson, the Huskies' All-America center.
Because of her height, Stewart is also a tough matchup for teams inside, following a 3-pointer in the second half against Louisville with a lob from Jefferson over the defense that resulted in a layup. Once again, a Stewart scoring spree stretched the UConn lead from seven to 52-40 with 14:37 remaining.
"You can tell when a team is trying to swing the momentum their way," Stewart said, told that Auriemma labeled her as clutch. "I think you do take a lot of pride in that. As a basketball player, any player would want the ball in their hands in a big moment. … At that point, I wanted the ball."
Asked about the off-balance 3, a play which started with her back to the basket, Stewart said: "I was faking the handoff. She wasn't up on me on the handoff, so I knew that when I turned around I would have room."
The Huskies limited Louisville leading scorer Shoni Schimmel (17.9 points per game prior to Sunday) to nine points. The Cardinals were also playing without starting guard Bria Smith (9.4 ppg) for the seccond straight game due to a knee injury.
UConn plays at South Florida next Sunday. The Huskies meet Louisville again in the final game of the regular season March 3 in Louisville.