INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Breanna Stewart’s goal when she came to UConn was to win four national championships.
She will have to beat her hometown team, Syracuse, to pull off that unprecedented feat in women’s basketball.
UConn will be playing for its fourth consecutive title Tuesday night and 11th overall. A victory over the Orange would move coach Geno Auriemma past UCLA men’s coach John Wooden for the most titles in NCAA 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,'” Auriemma 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, either: The Orange have lost the final 23 meetings against UConn, its last victory coming in 1996.
That doesn’t matter to them. Coach Quentin Hillsman has been saying for years that his team would be playing for a national championship. Now Syracuse is there.
“Every year in media day he says the same thing and we believe the same thing that we’re going to win the national championship and compete for the national championship,” Syracuse’s Brittney Sykes said. “We’re doing that right now. We’re here in this moment, living in this moment. Tuesday we’ll be competing for what he’s been saying all these years.”
The Huskies will be without freshman Katie Lou Samuelson. She broke the third metatarsal bone in her left foot in the first half of the semifinal win over Oregon State. 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. At halftime, “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 and cruised to an 80-59 rout. The Orange know they have a big challenge ahead in UConn.
“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.”
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