INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Breanna Stewart and UConn are one victory away from accomplishing their ultimate goal — a fourth straight national championship.
To achieve that unprecedented feat, Stewart and the Huskies will have to beat Syracuse, her hometown team.
“Growing up in Syracuse, I thought about it, going there. Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t think about going to the hometown school and that stuff?” she said. “But when push came to shove, UConn was the best place for me.”
And she’s been great for UConn. A victory Tuesday would give coach Geno Auriemma 11 national championships, moving him past UCLA men’s coach John Wooden for the most in NCAA basketball history.
Auriemma referred to standout seniors Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck as he looked toward the title game.
“I don’t know what I can do to help them except keep reminding them all the time, ‘This is your spot, you’ve owned this spot for the last three years,'” the Hall of Fame coach said.
“Now there’s no guarantee you’re going to get it Tuesday night, but we’re not going in there Tuesday night hoping we win. Because these three (players) they’ve done more than that, it doesn’t mean we’re going to win, but I don’t have to help them with that mentality.”
While the Huskies are no stranger to the title game, Syracuse is a newcomer. The Orange have been on an unexpected run in the NCAA Tournament. The fourth-seeded team had never gotten out of the opening weekend of the tournament before this season. Now they’ll have the monumental task of spoiling UConn’s coronation.
The former Big East teams met at least once a season before the Orange went to the ACC in 2013. They haven’t played since they left.
Since UConn won the first of its 11 championships in 1995, Syracuse hasn’t had much success. The Orange lost the final 23 meetings with Syracuse’s last victory coming in 1996. To make matters worse for the Orange, history isn’t on their side.
That doesn’t matter to the Orange.
“We have a chance on Tuesday night to play against the best team in the country, to play against a dynasty and play against a team that really forgot how to lose,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “That’s an amazing thing, to forget how to lose. I want to do that.”
The Huskies will play Tuesday night without freshman Katie Lou Samuelson. She broke the third metatarsal bone in her left foot in the first half. She missed practice Saturday because she was feeling under the weather. She started on Sunday, scoring seven points in the first half in 17 minutes. She didn’t come out of the locker room for the start of the second half, returning to the UConn bench early in the third quarter with a boot on her foot.
“I guess it happened on the very first possession that we had where she drove it to the basket and she said she felt something but didn’t really say anything and just continued to play on it,” Auriemma said. “And it wasn’t until late in the first half that we found out that there was something wrong.
“Then by halftime, when we were in the locker room, we knew that when she wasn’t back in the locker room right away, it had to be something. And then before the half started, before the second half started, Rosemary Ragle, our athletic trainer, told me she has a broken bone in her foot and she’s out. And we just addressed it with our team real quick and play on.”
Both teams advanced to the championship game with routs.
The Huskies won by 29 points, setting a Final Four record that surpassed the 28-point win by Tennessee over Arkansas in 1998. It was UConn’s 74th consecutive victory, the second-longest winning streak in NCAA and school history.
Syracuse jumped all over seventh-seeded Washington en route to an 80-59 rout. The Orange know they have a big challenge ahead.
“They’re a great basketball team,” Hillsman said. “Only thing I have going for me is that I was in the Big East and we know how they play, so their speed and quickness won’t be a shock. … Geno’s the best in the business. His team is the best in the business.”