UConn has forgotten how to lose, at least according to Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman.
“We have a chance on Tuesday night to play against a dynasty and play against a team that really forgot how to lose,” said Hillman.
On Tuesday night, the Huskies and the Orange will face off in the national championship at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This will be Syracuse’s first appearance in the title game while UConn’s legacy, already longstanding, could have another championship trophy by the end of the night.
Head coach Geno Auriemma has said he always tells his team to take it one step at a time and now, they discuss achieving that final step.
“Well, you know, there's always two parts to postseason. Three, actually. One, to get in; and, two, to get here; and, three, to be playing Tuesday night,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “So we're fortunate that we took care of the first two and then we've got one last obstacle here.”
The fourth-seeded Orange played an outstanding defensive game to roll past Washington in the semifinal, 80-59, almost the same margin of victory that UConn enjoyed earlier Sunday evening over Oregon State. Syracuse held Washington standout Kelsey Plum to 17 points, six of those coming from free throws. Plum was just 5-of-18 in field goals.
“They competed at a high level,” Hillsman said of his players after the game. “They pushed the pace, pushed the tempo. And that’s the difference in the game.”
Now they move on to the ultimate test: undefeated UConn. UConn desperately wants to win a fourth straight national championship for its seniors, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck.
Auriemma said that while he understands the significance of the trio winning their final college game, he also tries to keep it in perspective for the underclassmen. It’s important for him to treat it the same as he did for their first championship in 2013.
“It's this particular team with this group of individuals and we happen to have three seniors that have been there for the other three,” he said. “But we're trying to treat it as it's for this particular team.”
In its semifinal loss, Oregon State proved it is possible to slow down the Huskies, as the Beavers held Stewart to just two points in the first half before she broke away from the pressure and scored 16 for the game. UConn is also missing one of its starters, freshman Katie Samuelson, who broke a bone in her left foot in Sunday’s semifinal game. She has averaged 11.1 points per game, 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.
However, UConn proved that it has the depth to win and Stewart doesn’t tend to have two bad games in a row.
Tuck emerged on Sunday to lead her team with 21 points, while Jefferson ended with 10 points. After Samuelson’s injury, Gabby Williams came off the bench to contribute eight points and five rebounds for her team also.
“I am just going to have to be ready,” she said about replacing Samuelson for the title game. “I think the entire team will have to contribute a little more. No one can do the things she does, so we will all have to do a little bit more of what we are good at.”
Stewart and the rest of the Huskies don’t take this opportunity for granted, but they understand perfectly their advantages.
“We know what it takes to get to this level, to get to this stage, and to succeed on this stage,” said Stewart. “We are going in with the mindset that we're going to win a National Championship.”
No matter the outcome, it will be an emotional night. Stewart says it’s exciting to be playing against her hometown team as she plays one last game with her teammates, especially her fellow seniors.
“This is a big chunk of my life and having grown up with them has definitely created something special that I've never really had before,” she said of the last four years with this group.
“I know I have one game left, but I feel like I have 100. I am going to try to cherish every single moment that I have on that court,” said Jefferson.
UConn and Syracuse tip off at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, and while Syracuse will put up a fight, UConn is ready to seal its seniors’ names in the books once and for all.