- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Someone spotted Maya Moore in a sea of Connecticut fans.
She was wearing a blue blazer, jeans and gray Air Jordan kicks, and would say later that watching the Huskies win an NCAA title Tuesday night was nearly as emotional and exciting as winning one herself. The former UConn star made her way down to the family cheering section as UConn players rushed into the stands after cutting down the nets. Connecticut had just defeated Louisville, 93-60, to win its eighth NCAA title in program history.
Kelly Faris was the first UConn player to find her former teammate, which seemed appropriate given the respect the two players have for one another. Faris was tipped off by her older sister, who said, "Maya's down there!" and gestured toward the seats at the far corner of New Orleans Arena. Faris walked gingerly across the cushioned folding chairs, careful not to slip through, then climbed over the railing and into Moore's open arms. Faris and Moore played together for two seasons at Connecticut, winning an NCAA title during Faris' freshman season, then losing to Notre Dame -- a shocking result, considering Moore's collegiate dominance -- in the national semifinals a year later.
"I'm just so proud of you," Moore said to Faris, one of the hardest-working players in UConn history. "And so happy for you."
Moore later told espnW.com: "I was just so happy for her, to see her be able to go out on top. After the loss to Notre Dame my senior season, it was just her and me at the press conference afterward, and it was so tough. I didn't want that for her."
On this night, after UConn's historic win, the two guards had only a moment together before the rest of the Huskies found Moore, too. And at one point during the celebration, Moore was surrounded by Faris, sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and assistant coach Shea Ralph, who won an NCAA title with the Huskies in 2000. Freeze-frame that moment, and there are multiple generations of Huskies, a lineage of greatness. And if you zoom in, you'll see Faris and Mosqueda-Lewis, arms draped over each other's shoulders, wearing oversized "2013 NCAA champs" T-shirts, sweat dried.
In a way, Moore turned over the team to Faris two years ago. And on Tuesday night, Faris did the same with Mosqueda-Lewis. The two players were standing shoulder to shoulder on the sideline as they waited out the last seconds of the game. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had already substituted for his senior guard, wrapping her in a long hug.
"He was just saying how he felt like I deserved this, and I just wanted to thank him," Faris said. "I thanked him over and over again. It's one of those things between us when we say, 'How do you put it into words?' He knows what I'm feeling; I know what he's feeling."
Then Faris kept walking and ended up next to Mosqueda-Lewis, a smooth, sweet-shooting forward. The two starters had just dropped a total of 34 points -- including nine shots from beyond the arc -- against the Cardinals. Freshman forward Breanna Stewart also did her thing, scoring 18 points in the first half and 23 total en route to the most outstanding player award; but it was Faris and Mosqueda-Lewis who drained shot after shot in the second half, poking holes in every run that Louisville made.
The two teammates were exchanging thoughts with one another as the clock drained on both an NCAA title and Faris' career at UConn. They looked as though they were waiting for the starting gun in a sprint, except it was the opposite: They were waiting for the finish line, the final buzzer, so they could race onto the court with their teammates.
"Kelly was just saying to me, 'I'm proud of you, thank you so much,'" Mosqueda-Lewis said of the moment. "And I just said, 'You know what, Kelly? Thank you. Thank you for getting us here.'"
Because that is how everyone at UConn sees it -- that Kelly Farris, the 5-foot-11 guard from Indiana, the hardest worker anyone has met, the youngest of four kids, was the beating heart of this team.
"Kelly deserves this championship because she competes for the national championship every day in everything she does," Auriemma said. "And I'm really, really happy for her."
Yes, Faris already won a national title, but that was really Moore's championship, a title won with the sweat and strength of other players.
"It's different this time," Faris said. "We all had our roles our freshman year, and mine wasn't as big, but that's OK. I'm so happy for the group that got that one. And then the years between, we couldn't send out the seniors the right way -- that was the most disappointing part about it. This group turned that around. I think everybody was just feeling it. We feed off of each other and that's when we're best, and we knew that coming into this game. Throughout this whole tournament, we were just feeding off of each other. And if someone was hot, we got them the ball."
Everyone was hot Tuesday night. The Huskies set an NCAA record for 3-pointers in a women's championship game, finishing 13-for-26 from beyond the arc. Mosqueda-Lewis had the sweetest touch of all, making five from downtown. A couple of the long-range bombs came with the pressure off in the second half, the game merely an exhibition of UConn's greatness. "When you're out there and you know you're about to win, it just feels so awesome, like everything you've been working for has finally paid off," said the California native.
Not everything has been so euphoric for Mosqueda-Lewis. After last season's devastating national semifinal loss to Notre Dame, the second such loss for the Huskies in two seasons, Faris, backed by Auriemma, challenged her younger teammate to be better. Faris told Mosqueda-Lewis that the team expected more from her: more focus, more discipline, a change in attitude.
"That was hard for me to hear at first," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "But once I realized it was going to help my team and help me, I was more than willing to change."
Faris' eyes lit up as she talked about Mosqueda-Lewis and how she has grown. "She's made a huge transformation in the last year," she said. "And the two of us are so much closer. I know where her heart is. I can't wait to watch them play next year."
After the trophy presentation and net-cutting and TV interviews and locker-room celebration, nearly an hour after the final buzzer, Auriemma was finishing his news conference, wandering through the sweeping history of the program he has created. First, he was talking about 1991, when UConn first advanced to the Final Four. Then, he was talking about 1995, when the Huskies first won it all. "So to look back now and see where we've come and what's happened at Connecticut in the last 18 years, I would say, never in our wildest dreams did we think that was possible."
But here they were Tuesday, freshly minted champions climbing into the stands to hug former champions.
And all the signs pointing toward plenty of future championships.
19dBonnie D. Ford