TAMPA, Fla. -- The celebrating truly began with about 1:53 to go in the national championship game Tuesday. With a timeout on the floor, the fans sitting in the section behind the Connecticut bench stood and began to cheer, the Huskies holding a 13-point lead, finally comfortable after a game in which Notre Dame kept things close throughout.
With 31.0 seconds on the clock, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma began to pull his starters -- Breanna Stewart first, followed by Morgan Tuck and then senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, all receiving the requisite ovations.
By the time the buzzer sounded and the confetti cannons sent a shower of shiny, colored paper to the floor, the real celebration was on. Connecticut defeated the Irish 63-53 to win the program's third consecutive NCAA title and its 10th under coach Geno Auriemma, placing him in the company of Phil Jackson and John Wooden as the three coaches in history to win at least 10 championships.
As the mass hugging commenced, sophomore point guard Moriah Jefferson broke free and headed toward the stands to wave and smile at family.
"I am so hyped right now," Jefferson said as she dodged through a maze of photographers and reporters, hopping over the camera cables that littered the floor. On another part of the court, Stewart was unsuccessful trying to hold back tears, while Mosqueda-Lewis kept a tight grip on the NCAA Championship trophy, pieces of confetti sticking to her skin.
A group of players unfurled the UConn banner as they began putting on their "National Champion" T-shirts and hats, and the ladders were placed under the baskets on both sides of the floor.
A group of distinguished Connecticut alumni, including Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Kelly Faris and Caroline Doty, snapped a couple of group selfies as the team took the stage for the trophy presentation.
Moore, who had been posing for pictures with fans in the stands before the game, hugged Auriemma's wife, Kathy, and made eye-contact with Stewart on the stage, Stewart pointing in her direction and smiling. Meanwhile, Mosqueda-Lewis just kept a firm, two-handed grip on that trophy.
As Stewart was being interviewed by ESPN's Holly Rowe during the postgame presentation, she broke into tears and had to stop talking to gather herself twice -- first looking up to the ceiling and then pulling her shirt over her face as the crowd that remained in Amalie Arena chanted, "Stewie."
"I couldn't help it," Stewart said. "I'm really happy and proud of my team. This year, compared to the other two years, was not easy. It was way harder for us, and I feel like we've grown as people and as a program, and I was really feeling it."
As the team walked off the stage, Auriemma ran his hands through his hair and sighed. Meanwhile, the UConn band broke into the school fight song and Moore led her alumni group in song.
The Huskies moved to the first basket to begin net-cutting as the media descended on the players and Auriemma, and Mosqeuda-Lewis continuing her hold on the trophy. Tuck ducked quickly after she was hit in the head by a microphone that was being worked into position.
Auriemma's mother, Marciella, moved to the middle of the floor, holding her championship hat, and demurred politely when a TV reporter asked her for an interview.
Huskies associate head coach Chris Dailey was clearly, firmly in charge of net-cutting, directing traffic, telling staff and players when to take their turn on the ladder.
One net cut, the team moved to the opposite side of the floor, Mosqueda-Lewis wearing the first cut of net around her neck. As senior Kiah Stokes climbed the ladder, a woman standing near the basket said, "I love her, I could just take her home with me."
When all the players and coaches were done with their turn at the net, they yelled to retrieve Auriemma, who was once again surrounded by reporters.
Auriemma climbed the ladder, surrounded by cameras, cut the nets, smiled broadly and with a short wave, tossed the net piece to Stewart. As he came down, he was ambushed by his players, who pelted him with confetti they picked up from the floor and messed his hair, forcing him to take off his glasses.
After one last trophy presentation -- the Women's Basketball Coaches Association crystal trophy that Jefferson jokingly warned Mosqueda-Lewis not to touch -- the team came down off the stage one last time and gathered around their coach, preparing for the tradition of carrying him off the floor as Moore yelled from the side, "Bend your knees! Use your back!"
Auriemma said after the game that this ritual was fun at first, way back in 1995, but "now they bitch and moan about how heavy I am, and I just lay there like a stone. Kaleena took the worst of it today."
Still, Auriemma was carried off the floor to cheers and then led off to do television interviews while his team went to the locker room, which filled quickly with alumni, staff, athletic department administrators and TV crews.
It took more than 20 minutes for Auriemma to join his team.
"He likes to talk, you know," Dailey said.
When Auriemma finally made his way into the locker room, the packed house of his current and former players cheered. But Auriemma kept his emotions in check, reminding his players how far they'd come this season and how proud he was. Then it was off to the news conference for Auriemma, Stewart, Jefferson and Mosqueda-Lewis.
The rest of the team stayed behind as reporters and camera crews filled the small locker room.
"Words can't describe the feeling I have right now, I am just so excited," Stokes said. "I was light-headed out there from yelling so loud during the game."
Freshman guard Courtney Ekmark stood in the middle of the madness and had her picture taken with the championship trophy, while Tuck and Stokes did postgame interviews. Even Moore was in the back of the room in front of a gaggle of reporters.
As Stewart and the other players returned, the media converged, clearing a space to reveal a game of Uno happening involving a group of the Huskies' reserves and a couple of the team managers, the cards sitting in the middle on a folding chair as the players munched on chicken tenders and played their hands.
"Yeah, that's something they always do," chuckled Dailey.
"We have a lot traditions and some of them are really dopey," Auriemma said. "But some of them are cool. And as I get older, I embrace them."
The Huskies were going to be killing time for a while, waiting for their coach. Auriemma finished a 30-minute news conference and then stood in the hall outside the locker room for a while longer in front of another group of cameras. At that point, it was well after midnight. Time to take a few more pictures, grab a bite from the postgame spread and get packed for the charter flight home. The bus already had most of the Huskies' gear onboard, lockers emptied but for some soda cans, a few backpacks and their new championship gear.
A new day had already arrived, on the heels of yet another celebration. Something else the Huskies know how to do well.