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Mission accomplished for UConn seniors, talk turns to the future

Indianapolis — UConn seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart, and Morgan Tuck came to UConn together four years ago. They had their eyes set on achieving greatness, a form of greatness never before attained.

The magnificent trio had endured their struggles. Each time they picked themselves up and pressed forward with their sights set on winning four national championships.

When Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck walked off the court together at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter of the NCAA national championship game, their work was done. They had done it. They had led the Huskies to their fourth straight national championship with an 82-51 win over Syracuse.

“Coming off the court with Morgan and Mo, it was perfect,’’ Stewart said. “To be able to celebrate that with them, enjoy that with them and have our fans, friends and family cheering us as we walked off couldn’t have been better.’’

The players first embraced one another the instant they reached the sideline. They moved on for a group hug with coach Geno Auriemma.

Not only did they accomplish something that had not been done in the first 34 years of the NCAA tournament, they also become the winningest recruiting class in the history of Division I women’s basketball (151-5).

"To have come in with these two, to have grown with them as people, as basketball players, and become best friends with them, and then to do something that no one else has ever done with them, I keep saying unbelievable’ as a word to describe it,’’ Stewart said.

Stewart, who unquestionably is one of the top players the history of the sport, will leave ranked second all-time at UConn in scoring (2,676), fourth in rebounds (1,179) and first in blocks (414). She is the only player to be named the Associated Press National Player of the Year three times, and the only player named Final Four Most Outstanding Player four times.

Jefferson, a two-time WBCA All-American and Nancy Lieberman Award winner as the nation’s top point guard, scored 1,532 points and is the team’s career leader in assists (659) and second in steals (353).

Tuck, who announced Wednesday that she will forgo her final year of eligibility and declare for the WNBA Draft, finishes her career with 1,298 points and 544 rebounds in 115 games.

"There's no such thing as a program without the people in it,’’ Auriemma said. "So during their four years here they are the program in some ways, as the older players were before them that they played with. So without them there is no opportunity to do stuff like this. It just wouldn’t happen.’’

Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck won their final 75 games and 122 of 123 since a 61-59 loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament final on March 12, 2013. This season they accounted for 51.9 percent of the scoring, 41.5 percent of the rebounding and 60.2 percent of the assists for the Huskies (38-0).

"You could write a novel about this one,’’ UConn sophomore Kia Nurse said. "They have influenced me in so many ways. I’m fortunate enough to be around them each and every day and learn how to conduct myself on the court, learn how to conduct myself off the court, how to get better at this, how to be successful.’’

The program’s standard of excellence was further fortified by Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck. With their departure, Nurse, fellow sophomore Gabby Williams and freshmen Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson inherit the primary responsibility of having to emerge as leaders for UConn next season.

"Out of respect for us and out of respect for the other players who have played in this program, they’re not going to want to let us down,” Stewart said. "They know what we did. They know what we sacrificed. And now the ball is in their hands to take care of that.’’

Samuelson is UConn’s top returning scorer next season (11.0). Nurse averaged 9.3 points and was fourth on the team in assists (2.7) this season. Williams averaged 8.8 points and was third on the team in rebounding (5.6). Collier averaged 6.8 points and was fourth in rebounding (5.2).

The Huskies will also welcome three recruits — Molly Bent, a 5-foot-9 guard from Centerville, Mass.; Crystal Dangerfield, a 5-6 point guard from Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and Kyla Irwin, a 6-2 forward from State College, Pa.

Dangerfield, who was named a McDonald’s and WBCA All American, is the lynchpin of the class. She averaged 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists at Blackman High this season. She is a three-time state Gatorade Player of the Year.

“Our seniors have taught us,” Williams said. "They have taught us how to be successful at UConn and how to be great leaders and great teammates. So now it’ll be up to us to do that next year.”

The greatest four-year stretch in the history of Division I women’s basketball is complete. However, just because Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck are gone that does not mean the expectations change. The Huskies will be expected to contend for their 12th national championship next season.

Nurse would not have it any other way.

"Who doesn’t like a challenge,’’ Nurse said. "We take them as they come here.’’

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