The most exuberant celebration photo of the UConn Huskies' fourth consecutive NCAA Championship was not captured at the final buzzer.
The photo came with 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter, when the Huskies had an 80-51 lead over Syracuse. The team's top senior trio, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, came out of the game about two minutes before the photo. Stewart had 24 points and 10 rebounds. Jefferson had 13 points and five assists. Tuck had 19 points and seven rebounds. It was the last game of their careers, and the seniors could have spent those final seconds embracing. They could have looked at their parents in the stands to mouth, four! Instead, their eyes were locked on fellow senior and former walk-on, Briana Pulido.
Everyone on the UConn bench saw Pulido was open in the corner, an arm's length away from where they watched, crouched and frozen. Pulido fired a long two-pointer with her feet on the arc. Her shot swished in, and the bench erupted. Ponytails flew as the team leaped and screamed.
The most thrilling bucket of the tournament for UConn came from a player who averaged 2.6 minutes a game. They were Pulido's ninth and tenth points of the season. The Huskies won the game, 82-51.
Another championship meant Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck made history as the only players, women or men, to win four titles in college hoops history. It was the second undefeated season they experienced as Huskies, this one ending 38-0. UConn's win streak extended to 75 games. The team finished the season with an average margin of victory of 39.7 points. UConn pummeled everyone.
During the winter slog against opponents who struggled to compete against them, UConn played games within the games, challenged by coach Geno Auriemma during timeouts.
Don't let your opponent shoot anywhere in the paint until the next time out.
Make sure No. 5 doesn't touch the ball.
Show me the footwork you've been working on in the post and go to the rim left-handed.
The Huskies played against the game of basketball to make their performances the most beautiful examples of execution.
Of course, noting UConn's opponents struggled to compete against them is far different than saying UConn's dominance is "bad for the sport." Or worse, UConn is "killing the game." Both were sentiments UConn heard leading up to the Final Four. They are sentiments UConn has heard for years. Being the best doesn't kill a sport. Rather, UConn is the blueprint for others to rise. Oregon State Coach Scott Rueck said it's not UConn's job to play down to the level of other teams.
"I'll be honest, if I were to watch a basketball game, I've told people, I would rather watch UConn than anybody. Men or women," Rueck said. "The way that they transition, the way they share the basketball. The way they defend. I think they set a high bar in every way. They're excellent. And so how can excellence be bad? I've never understood that. I think UConn is inspirational, the way they conduct themselves. And so I think they're nothing but good for the game. I think it's up to the rest of us to rise to that level. And I think any time you have a bar that's that high, that's a positive."
Up 20, Tuck will come off a screen perfectly to dash inside for a lay-up. Up 30, Stewart will block two players during the same possession. Up 40, Jefferson will fling her body out of bounds to save a loose ball. UConn does not jog.
Stewart is the AP Player of the Year for the third time -- a unanimous pick. To witness Stewart's skill packed in a slender body that's all elbows and kneecaps is a treat. Her 7-foot wingspan is longer than Michael Jordan's. She's frequently double-teamed yet barely slowed. She averaged 19.4 points and 8.7 rebounds in 29 minutes per game this season. Those numbers get even more impressive when you consider Stewart occasionally sat out the fourth quarter in conference games because UConn's leads ballooned to an eye-popping level when Auriemma kept his seniors in.
Auriemma said Stewart could take 20 shots a game and make 18 of them, but that's not what he asks her to do. She draws the defense, because they must guard her, and she kicks it out to a teammate. Bang. They point to her to acknowledge the assist. She smiles back. Stewart averaged 3.9 assists per game this season, the second-most on the team.
When it was time to collect the NCAA championship trophy, Stewart jumped on stage with a thud that shook the legs of the platform. She said "oh man" to no one as she scanned the crowd. For the fourth time, Stewart was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, a feat no woman or man before her had achieved.
Stewart talked briefly to reporters on the court before cutting down the net, happily answering 18 different versions of the question, "How does it feel?" with the same answer: "It was a perfect ending."
When each player had her piece of twine, the seniors gathered for an extra picture on the ladder. Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck, UConn's All-Americans this season, had Pulido join them in the picture. The walk-on who had the guts to think she could make it on a championship team lifted her twine with the others. There are stars on the team, but they play like a family.
About 25 former UConn players watched the victory. They were on the court postgame for a super-sized team picture that captured decades of success.
It was nearly midnight in Indianapolis, and the players were ready to take the celebration to the locker room. They swarmed Auriemma and dumped confetti on his head. Jefferson mussed his hair. The players grabbed an arm or a leg and carried their coach off the court. The Huskies streamed into the tunnel together to go back to a more intimate area to reflect on history. A fourth straight national championship. Eleven championships total for the program, a new NCAA basketball record.
One of UConn's most famous alumni, Maya Moore, trailed behind the pack, holding something that wasn't hers this time. "Has anyone seen the trophy?" Moore joked, the hardware held securely in her arms.
The players left without it.
Heather Buck, a fan favorite from the first championship in this four-year run, chimed in, "Don't worry. We know how to handle a trophy."