By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Sports Capital Journalism Program
Maybe UConn’s presumed fourth consecutive national championship won’t be as easy as many predicted.
The Huskies (37-0) cruised part Oregon State, 80-51, in what was supposed to be the tougher of their two potential games this weekend. However, Syracuse easily dispatched Washington with its combination of full-court pressure and 3-point shooting in Sunday’s 80-59 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, showing signs it may be capable of dethroning the three-time defending national champions in Tuesday’s title game.
“We have confidence in what we do,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “We’re going to do what we’ve done. We won 30 games this year, so we’re not going to go to the game [against UConn] and now sit back and not press and not play fast. … 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.”
The Orange led wire-to-wire to reach the program’s first-ever national championship game. They forced more turnovers, grabbed more offensive rebounds and launched more shots than Washington in a fundamentally sound game.
Syracuse was relentless with its pressure and didn’t allow Washington players any breathing room. The Orange forced 18 turnovers, including six turnovers from the usually sure-handed Kelsey Plum. Plum entered averaging 26.2 points per game but was limited to 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting and 3 assists.
“Kelsey Plum’s a great player,” Maggie Morrison said, “so we took it personal to guard her and do our best against her.”
Washington coach Mike Neighbors knew what to expect with Syracuse’s pressure and zone. He and his staff tried to prepare the team by watching film, talking about what to expect, and working on faking passes and making cuts and passes.
But without a practice team to simulate the feeling in the days leading up, Neighbors said he could see his team wasn’t well enough prepared, and he took the blame for that.
“We expected it. We didn’t handle it very well,” Neighbors said. “Expecting it and being prepared for it are two different things.”
The Orange attacked the boards and outrebounded Washington by 18, including a plus-13 mark on the offensive boards. Junior center Briana Day grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds for Syracuse. While it appeared the Huskies were waiting for the rebounds to come to them, the Orange were actively seeking out and chasing down rebounds.
“I was just thinking, ‘Go get the rebound,’” Day said. “Coach just told us, ‘You better not not crash the boards.’ So that’s just what we did.”
Syracuse had 17 second-chance points to go along with 20 points off turnovers.
“That’s 37 points that are effort and hustle and them doing what they do,” Neighbors said.
The Syracuse zone wouldn’t budge, and Washington couldn’t get anything going inside early on. The Huskies didn’t score inside the 3-point arc until a layup by Katie Collier with 5:02 left in the second quarter; Washington was down 36-18 before that basket.
Syracuse’s offense did damage and made history from beyond the arc. The Orange made 12 3-point field goals, the most in a national semifinal game. Senior guard Brianna Butler made four of those 3-pointers, breaking the NCAA single-season record; her 128th triple with 4:26 to play was part of an 8-0 run to close the game.
The Orange took 19 more shots and made 10 more than Washington. Four players scored in double figures for Syracuse, led by Alexis Peterson’s 18 points and 6 assists.
Talia Walton’s hot hand from beyond the arc kept the game from getting too far out of hand early on. The redshirt senior scored 18 of the team’s first 21 points to help keep the Huskies within 43-31 at the half. She finished with eight 3-pointers and 29 points; the rest of the team combined for 30 points.
The Huskies were unable to sustain any momentum. They cut the lead to 52-41 midway through the second half, only for Syracuse to go on a 12-0 run. After trailing by 24 toward the end of the third quarter, they cut the Orange’s lead to 72-59 with 5:37 to play, only to go scoreless for the remainder of the game.
“We got back on our heels and just couldn’t get back into it,” said Washington junior Chantel Osahor. “They had an answer every time.”
Now, do the Orange have an answer for UConn? No other team has. UConn is 37-0 and has won every game by double figures. But Syracuse’s performance Sunday showed it may be able to hang with UConn and pull off a stunning upset.
“If they play as hard as they did and play together and do what they did tonight, I’m sure they can [give Connecticut a game],” Plum said after the game. “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.”