INDIANPOLIS – It would have been easy to predict a blowout during the 2016 Women’s Final Four on Sunday.
UConn entered the day in the midst of a remarkable 73-game win streak and had a 45-point average margin of victory in this year’s tournament. They’re the gold standard of women’s college basketball and, as good as Oregon State is, a convincing Huskies win in Sunday’s opening game was expected. True to form, the Huskies won 80-51.
What wasn’t expected was a second blowout of the night. However, it’s exactly what we got.
Syracuse and Washington faced off in Sunday’s nightcap and, on paper at least, were two evenly matched teams.
However, the Orange absolutely dominated Washington, never trailing once in an 80-59 win.
As a four seed, Syracuse wasn’t even supposed to be in the Final Four, let alone blow out a Washington team that had gone through Maryland, Kentucky and Stanford en route to the semifinal.
But Syracuse did just that.
The Syracuse women were playing with an energy Washington just couldn’t match, as they flew around the court. The Orange didn’t give Washington any breathing room and forced turnover after turnover. In total, Syracuse forced 18 turnovers and scored 20 points off those turnovers.
“We get a lot of energy from that and we pride ourselves on defense," Syracuse guard Alexis Peterson said. “When we can get and get after teams and turn them over, keep them from running their offense, it gives us more momentum to get out run and get in transition.”
The Orange left Washington completely flustered, and there was nothing the Huskies could do about it.
“You can go at it as hard as you want to in practice, but you can't simulate stuff like that,”Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “We don't have anybody in our league that presses for 40 minutes and puts such stress on you for 40 minutes.”
On top of forcing turnovers, another key for Syracuse was keeping Washington guard Kelsey Plum in check. Plum is a truly dynamic talent, and her 26.2 point scoring average ranked third in the nation heading into Sunday’s game.
The Orange didn’t just slow her down, they shut her down.
Plum ended up with 17 points, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Cuse made Plum completely ineffective, holding the star guard to just 5-of-18 shooting from the field.
“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.”
Syracuse didn’t solely do a great job on defense, though.
They were also clicking offensively. Four players scored in double figures for the Orange, including team leaders Peterson (18 points) and Brittney Sykes (17 points).
The Orange are a team that wants to spread the floor and put up as many outside shots as possible – they take the 11th most 3s per game – and they got exactly what they wanted against Washington.
“You can prepare for it, you can watch it on film, you can try to simulate it all you want,” Neighbors said. “But when they can spread you and stretch you that far out on the floor, it makes it incredibly hard to defend."
Syracuse was constantly in motion and so was the ball, ultimately leading to plenty of good looks from beyond the arc. They took a whopping 33 outside shots and knocked home 12 of them. Their 12 makes ranks second in Women's Final Four history.
Dagger. pic.twitter.com/CrL8bDQchK— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) April 4, 2016
Still, as much success as Syracuse had away from the basket, it was their work right near the rim that played a crucial role in their offensive dominance.
The Orange were relentless on the offensive glass, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds compared to Washington’s four. Syracuse turned these offensive boards into 17 second-chance points, which, again, was something the Huskies simply couldn’t match (seven second-chance points).
It was a remarkably impressive all-around performance from Syracuse, and one that makes a UConn blowout on Tuesday night seem less likely.
“If they play as hard as they did and play together and do what they did tonight, I'm sure they can (give UConn a game),” Washington guard Talia Walton said. “Connecticut is a phenomenal team. They have a lot of experience here, and Syracuse doesn't. But you couldn't tell they didn't have experience by that game tonight.”
It would be difficult to project an upset. This is a UConn team that might go down as the greatest ever, after all.
But Syracuse has defied the odds before. They weren’t supposed to be in the Elite Eight. They weren’t supposed to be in the Final Four. And they certainty weren’t supposed to be one of the last two teams standing.
However, here they are, red hot with the only thing standing between them and their first national championship being the same thing that Orange coach Quentin Hillsman yelled to the crowd as time wound down on Sunday.
“One more game.”