INDIANAPOLIS — Washington head coach Mike Neighbors knew what was coming Sunday night against Syracuse at the Women’s Final Four — lots and lots of pressure.But as hard as he and his team tried, they just couldn’t prepare for it and the Orange came away with an 80-59 victory to advance to Tuesday’s NCAA Championship game against Connecticut.
“They’re incredibly hard to function against offensively,” Neighbors said. “I think we had been playing as well offensively as anyone in the country in the last month. They just put a lot of stress on us tonight. It made it really hard.”
Syracuse, the NCAA leader in turnover margin, forced 18 against the Huskies. And that pressure made Washington spread the floor that ended up giving the Orange a 46-28 rebounding advantage.
“They got 17 second-chance points and 20 points off turnovers,” Neighbors said. “That’s 37 points that are effort and hustle and them doing what they do. I think that’s the difference in the game.”
Washington junior guard Kelsey Plum — one of nation’s most prolific scorers — did manage a hard-fought 19 points, but she said none came easy.
“Syracuse, their pressure is very good, they do a very good job of trapping ball screens and rotating on the pass and they're very athletic,” Plum said. “So they touch a lot of passes. They did a great job tonight. And I didn't do a very good job of handling that pressure.”
While Washington had already been squeezed by the Orange’s press earlier this season, losing to Syracuse, 66-62, in November. Neighbors was hoping that game would help his team prepare, but knowing what was coming just wasn’t enough.
“It’s next to impossible because you can’t simulate it,” Neighbors said. “You can go at it as hard as you want in practice, but you can’t simulate stuff like that. We don’t have anybody in our league who presses for 40 minutes and puts so much stress on you for 40 minutes.”
The Orange, who rank second in the nation in steals per game thanks to their full-court pressure, nabbed 12 against the Huskies.
And the Syracuse players thrive off keeping up that kind of intensity.
“We get a lot of energy on that,” said Syracuse junior guard Alexis Peterson. “We pride ourselves on defense. When we can go after and get after teams and keep them from running their offense it give us more momentum to get out and run in transition.”
The Orange knows their toughest test comes Tuesday against three-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut. Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman knows pressing the most talented team in the country will be challenge, but they’re going to try.
“I don't know if we can play any other way right now,” Hillsman said. “That's what we do. And we've had some success doing that. We understand that they're a very balanced team. Multiple ball handlers, they have quickness. And their post players can handle the ball. But we've got to try to do what we've done to get to this point. I don't think we can get to the last game in the season and change what we do.”
· Syracuse is making its first appearance in the Women’s Final Four and will play for the national championship for the first time on Tuesday evening.
· Syracuse reaches the 30-win mark for the season for the first time in program history with the win. The Orange are now 30-7 on the season. Syracuse has won 16 of its last 17 games.
· The 12 three-point field goals by Syracuse were the second most in a game in Women’s Final Four history. Only the 13 three-point field goals by UConn against Louisville in the 2013 championship game surpasses Syracuse’s total. The 12 three-point field goals are the most in a national semifinal game.
· The 23 combined three-point field goals between the teams were the most combined by two teams in a Women’s Final Four matchup. It is the first time in Women’s Final Four history that both teams in a game have hit at least 10 three-point field goals.