Moriah Jefferson's bursts bust Notre Dame

Connecticut wins 10th national title (2:13)

SportsCenter Highlight of the Night: Geno Auriemma tied John Wooden for the most titles in college basketball history as Connecticut defeated Notre Dame 63-53. (2:13)

TAMPA, Fla. -- This time the burst came before the run.

The runs -- the soul-crushing, often awe-inspiring, always merciless runs -- are as much a part of the identity of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team as the canals are to Venice and sunsets to Venice Beach. They are about as predictable as the latter, too. No matter how well an opponent plays for five minutes, 15 minutes, even 30 minutes, the run will eventually come. It arrived late in the first half when Connecticut and Notre Dame played in South Bend in December, a 22-2 blitz that turned Notre Dame's double-digit lead into a permanent deficit.

It fueled many, if not most, of the nine championships that came before Tuesday night.

But this time there was no run. Connecticut, which won four championship games in the previous six seasons by an average of 20 points, didn't make the run, only a couple of mini-runs here and there. Even bogged down on offense with its star player again unable to find her stroke, Notre Dame didn't let it happen.

But there wasn't anything the Fighting Irish could do about the burst. Nothing they could do about Moriah Jefferson or the role she played in leading Connecticut to a 63-53 win.

Jefferson didn't play the perfect game, but she played a perfectly complete one.

"She just has a powerful presence that she's grown into, which makes it that much sweeter to see her transformation as a leader," one former Connecticut player said of Jefferson in the winning locker room. "Her energy is so contagious. Her body language, her attitude, it's all just very life giving to her team. And then she can also back it up with her ridiculous talent. She's so fast, she's so quick, she's a great defender, she finds her teammates. Then what elevates her to another place is she can shoot the ball; she can knock down the 3.

"I just admire her."

And when Maya Moore admires you, well, you must be some kind of special.

Jefferson finished with 15 points, five assists and four steals, but that doesn't begin to capture the burst -- the way a 5-foot-7 player draws your eyes toward her.

With six and a half minutes remaining in the game, a Brianna Turner miracle that banked in as the shot clock expired brought Notre Dame within six points at 54-48. Poised at the top of the key as the clock ticked toward zero, her own team's offense again something less than the masterpiece of engineering to which we've grown accustomed, Jefferson burst -- and there is really no other word to describe it -- toward the basket. The defender in front of her never stood a chance. Help-side defenders were up against the laws of physics as they tried to slide over into the lane in time to cut her off. In the blink of an eye, Jefferson went from the top of the key to the basket and pushed the lead to 56-48.

"She's extremely quick, especially with the ball," Connecticut junior Morgan Tuck said of her classmate. "She's really quick with the ball. A lot of people are quicker without, but with the ball, she's so good with it and makes such good reads. She knows how to fake her defender and can pretty much get by anybody."

Notre Dame answered right back, a strong move from Lindsay Allen pulling it back to a two-possession game at 56-50. But after Jewell Loyd couldn't convert on a drive that would have cut the deficit to four points on the subsequent possession, Jefferson again burst forth, this time in full court transition off the outlet pass. With the speed of a sprinter but the vision of a point guard, she spotted Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis filling a trail lane on the opposite side of the court. Mosqueda-Lewis caught the pass, the ball hitting her in the hands just above her waist to allow an easy transition to her shooting motion, and hit a 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 59-50. The score never got any closer.

"I knew Moriah was going to drive in and try to draw as many people as she could," Mosqueda-Lewis said of the moment. "I just yelled her name, and once she passed me the ball, I knew I had to make it."

Whether it was those plays, hitting a 3-pointer to cut off a Notre Dame run or finding the energy on defense to slide around Loyd and tip away an entry pass late in the second half, Jefferson controlled a game that needed controlling. Her bursts kept Notre Dame at bay.

Breanna Stewart was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, giving the star an opportunity to accomplish the mind-blowing feat of doing that four years in a row. It wasn't an undeserved honor for the best player in the country, even on a night when she played as close to a supporting role as a player of her immense ability can. But even Stewart seemed to know, and made the case in the moments after the win, that this night, and maybe this Final Four, belonged to the smallest player on the court.

Unlike Stewart, so good in her first tournament, Jefferson played just 14 minutes in her first national championship game. She wasn't ready then. Geno Auriemma said he wondered during the course of that first season where the player was that he recruited. But two days shy of exactly two years later, she was ready.

"I think the biggest thing was just confidence," Connecticut assistant coach Shea Ralph said of Jefferson's development. "That was the first stage, believing in herself. Because when she came here as a freshman, she struggled. She didn't play a lot. And when you're all-everything in high school and you come here and you don't play, that can shake you a little bit. But for Mo, she took it to heart in that she used it to fuel her work ethic and a change in her mentality to make sure she did play [as a sophomore]."

While it's easy to depict as a straight line climbing steadily upward, such progression rarely comes without some fits and starts. It is no coincidence that Jefferson's performances fell at opposite ends of the spectrum in Connecticut's two most notable games this season. Against Stanford in November, she was awful and Connecticut fell apart in the closing minutes. Against Notre Dame in April, she was brilliant.

The turning point after a slow start to a season with big expectations came when she went home to Texas for a couple of days over winter break, the catalyst not Auriemma and his famous button pushing but nieces aged 1 and 3.

"I didn't think about basketball at all," Jefferson said. "I just went home and saw my nieces, my aunts, my uncles. I saw everybody and I just relaxed, you know, got away from the game. I came back to school, and I just started playing. It just happened to go my way."

Which meant it didn't go the way of a lot of opposing players. Tuesday was Loyd's turn.

"I thought she was a great defender tonight," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I thought she made things hard for Jewell. ... We weren't able to really get anything going because most of our offense runs through Jewell. And she really did a great job of denying her the ball."

There will be questions about Jefferson's potential at the next level because of her size. Moore and ESPN analyst Kara Lawson, independent of each other, both came up with former Oklahoma All-American Danielle Robinson as a comparison. But even Robinson is bigger and longer in limb than Jefferson. That concern aside, the rest of what Jefferson does on the defensive end, Lawson noted, is something closer to professional level than college level. Her quickness and her hands are elite, obviously, but so is her ability to avoid getting caught up in screens and her defensive understanding.

Connecticut freshman Kia Nurse, who has some experience of her own with world-class defending after playing for Canada against Team USA in international competition, is one of the unlucky souls who gets to experience Jefferson in a defensive crouch.

"It's extremely difficult to either guard her or have her guarding you," Nurse said. "She is so quick, so that obviously causes a little bit of disruption in your game. When you get to play against people like that every single day, they will expose your weaknesses, they will get on you and then you'll be better. I'm really lucky to play against her in individuals and pickup games and learn from her."

Lucky because the scores aren't in the newspaper and the highlights aren't online.

The rest of the country isn't so lucky. The rest of the country isn't better for the experience. The rest of the country is just worn out.

Jefferson will start next season with more assists than all but three active Division I players. She will start the season with more steals than all but two active Division I players. She should start it as a first-team All-American, too.

She finished this season like one.

"I think Moriah has the hardest job on the floor," Ralph said. "She has the ball, she's playing with three or four other All-Americans on the court at one time and she has to be able to score. So she has to get them the ball at the right time and then she has to be able to score when they can't."

She did that and more Tuesday night. She did it all. Not perfectly but completely.