TAMPA, Florida — Notre Dame trudged off the court, losers again in the women's national championship game.
Connecticut may not have been as dominant as the Huskies have been most of this season in winning the title for the third consecutive year, however the youthful Irish walked from Tuesday night's NCAA Tournament final knowing they had a lot to do with that.
"Obviously it hurts. ... We really wanted this," sophomore Taya Reimer said after the 63-53 defeat, Notre Dame's fourth in five years in the title game.
"Disappointing way to end the season, but I thought it was a great achievement to get here," coach Muffet McGraw said. "Disappointing in I think that we weren't able to really play our game."
Freshman Brianna Turner had 14 points and 10 rebounds, with most of her production coming in the second half to keep UConn (38-1) from breaking the game open. All-American Jewell Loyd scored 12, but just two after halftime when she missed all eight of her shots from the field to finish 4 of 18 shooting.
UConn held the Irish to 33 percent shooting and Notre Dame turned ball over nine times. The Irish did a nice job defending two-time AP Player of the Year Breanna Stewart, but couldn't contain Huskies point guard Moriah Jefferson, who had 15 points and spearheaded UConn's defensive effort on Loyd.
"We weren't able to really get anything going because most of our offense runs through Jewell," McGraw said. Jefferson "really did a great job denying her the ball."
The Irish lost to their former Big East rivals in the title game for the second straight year. They also lost in the final to Texas A&M in 2011 and Baylor in 2012.
"The hardest part was beating a great team," Auriemma said.
"I talked to Muffet before the game and she said (Notre Dame) didn't expect to be here," having so many young players. "But I'll tell you what, they were unbelievable as they usually are."
McGraw got her team back to the championship game for the fourth time in five years despite starting five underclassmen and beginning the season with the coach concerned about who she could count on for leadership after losing two players selected in the first round of the WNBA draft.
Loyd followed an outstanding sophomore season by averaging 20 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists to become Notre Dame's latest All-American. Turner emerged as the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder, while Reimer and another sophomore, Lindsay Allen, took up some of the scoring slack by averaging in double figures.
All four return next season, as does Michaela Mabrey, the other starter in the Irish's three-guard backcourt
"We have everybody back, but there's no guarantees that we could get back here," McGraw said. "I mean, it's going to take a lot of hard work. ... We've got a great opportunity to look at some of the weaknesses that were exposed tonight. ... So, I've got really optimistic high hopes for next year."
Meanwhile, Madison Cable, Whitney Holloway and Markisha Wright depart as the winningest senior class in school history with a 143-10 record over the past four years. That's five more victories than last year's class comprised of Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Ariel Baker.
It's not a given the Irish will return for a sixth straight Final Four appearance next spring, but Reimer said coming up short again Tuesday night will provide fuel.
"We're just going to use it as motivation," she said, "because we want to get back to this moment, and we want to be the ones out there holding the trophy."