On big stage, Stewart again delivers

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was billed as the biggest game in the history of women's college basketball, an unprecedented pairing of undefeated teams with a championship on the line. The years to come might prove the billing accurate, or they might prove the hype and hubbub one more example of our tendency in the modern world to confuse most recent with most important.

What does seem fair to suggest is that it would be difficult to call anything the biggest game in the history of the sport if one of the all-time greats wasn't on the court to participate.

Legends make games legendary. Or maybe it's the other way around.

In the spirit of letting time run its course before writing history, perhaps Breanna Stewart isn't there yet. But after she totaled 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks in Connecticut's 79-58 win against Notre Dame on Tuesday, it grows increasingly difficult to believe she won't be among her sport's all-time greats by the time she's done playing for the sport's most successful program.

Two seasons. Two NCAA championships. Two times the most outstanding player in the Final Four.

Only Cheryl Miller, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi and Chamique Holdscaw ever earned that last honor a second time. That's some pretty impressive company.

None of them did so in their first two seasons. On that count, Stewart has no peers.

And that deserves a round of applause.

"I think last year I didn't really know what to expect -- I mean, I'd never been here before," Stewart said. "This year I knew what I wanted. I knew what it took to get here. And I think it helped a lot."

This was a more compelling game than the final score indicated, if only because the first half was about as good a display of basketball as the season produced. Connecticut came out and attacked aggressively in the paint from the outset. Even without All-American post Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame destroyed Maryland on the boards and in the paint in Sunday's semifinal, but the Huskies controlled both areas with Stewart, Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes.

On Connecticut's second possession, Stewart got deep in the paint and tipped home her own missed shot. Less than a minute later, position established again, she took a pass from Mosqueda-Lewis and finished from close range.

The rout wasn't on at that point, but a theme was.

Down as many as 14 points in the first half, the Fighting Irish cut the deficit to seven points by intermission on the strength of good shooting from Kayla McBride and Michael Mabrey, but they were plugging holes in an already doomed dam. Connecticut outscored Notre Dame 32-10 in the paint in the first half. There weren't enough shots in the building to make up for that disparity.

Stewart was in the middle of it all, totaling 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the first 20 minutes.

Asked about what she said to Geno Auriemma when the two shook hands and spoke briefly at the end of the game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw relayed a light moment, in stark contrast to the previous day's charged mood. She said she told Auriemma that it felt at times like the Fighting Irish were playing the Miami Heat. All that was missing, she continued, was LeBron James.

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