By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – They sat in front of their lockers and spoke softly. Many hung their heads while others gazed straight ahead at nothing in particular. Their eyes were still red and watery.
Syracuse had just suffered one of its biggest losses of the season on a national stage. In a drama-free game, UConn cruised to its fourth consecutive national championship, winning 82-51 on Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Afterwards, the Syracuse players sat in near-silence. A subdued locker room. Coach Quentin Hillsman had just told them how his dad always said he was great, that he was going to be successful; a story that unleashed a smile from senior Cornelia Fondren as she processed Hillsman’s postgame message.
It’s a message he’s shared with the team often because the more his dad told him he was great, the more he believed it. And it’s a message he shared with his team, so they knew how proud he was of their season: A program-record 30 wins and five tournament victories.
“I always told my kids we’re a great basketball team and great players,” Hillsman said. “I don’t lie to them. They’re a great basketball team and great players. I told them we’re never going to be the victim. Don’t ever be the victim. Because victims lay down.”
Syracuse may have lost Tuesday, but they far from laid down. Even with the game seemingly out of reach, the Orange continued to fight in the third quarter.
The fight started with a layup from Fondren. Then a jumper by Alexis Peterson. The press had started to work because the shots began to fall. The shots began to fall because the Orange were sharing the ball, moving it side to side.
All of a sudden, Syracuse had strung together a 16-0 run over a 4:04 stretch. The Orange still trailed by 17, 60-43.
“There was a time during the huddle and the game when Syracuse went on that run of theirs where we talked about that you can’t stumble into the history,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of the timeout he called with 2:02 left in the third quarter. “Like if you’re going to do this, you need to do it the right way. You need to break through the finish line, not stumble across it.”
UConn regrouped and closed out the game on a 22-8 run. Syracuse entered the game holding teams to 59.5 points per game. UConn led 50-23 at the half and reached 60 points 3:19 into the second half. The 82 points UConn scored were tied for the second-most points Syracuse gave up all season. The Huskies recorded 22 assists on 28 made baskets.
Breanna Stewart, who was on triple-double watch at the half, finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks in her final game at UConn. She was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for an unprecedented fourth time.
UConn’s Morgan Tuck had 19 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists while Moriah Jefferson added 13 points and 5 assists.
The game looked like it’d be a rout early. Dribbling through and attacking the Syracuse press, the Huskies jumped out to a 9-0 lead as four players scored. Jefferson hit an off-balance 3-pointer to beat the first-quarter buzzer and put UConn ahead 28-13, stalling the momentum of a 7-2 Syracuse run.
“Coach Q just said that was a big-girl play, a grown-woman play,” said Fondren, who led Syracuse with 16 points.
The Huskies held Syracuse scoreless for the first 3:27 of the second quarter to put the game out of reach. UConn ran out to a 34-15 lead by the time Brittney Sykes hit a jumper to end the scoring drought.
UConn’s man-to-man defense effectively made switches and contested shots in the first half. Syracuse’s shots weren’t falling, which meant the defense wasn’t able to set up its pressure. Without the press, Syracuse couldn’t force turnovers to lead to fast break opportunities.
Syracuse took eight more shots than UConn but made six fewer baskets.
The Huskies won the rebounding battle, 43-27. The Orange didn’t grab their first offensive rebound until there was 5:33 left in the first half.
The Orange forced 17 turnovers, but only turned those into 15 points while UConn converted 12 turnovers into 21 points.
The Orange were limited to 2-of-19 shooting from beyond the arc. They entered averaging 9 makes per game. Senior Brianna Butler, the NCAA single-season record holder for 3-pointers in a season, was held to 1-of-8 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 from 3-point range.
As Hillsman recounted the story he told his players about his dad, he passed the credit for the season’s success to his players during the postgame press conference.
“We fought hard,” Butler said back in the locker room. “We did a lot that a lot of people said we couldn’t do, making the Final Four, making history. Syracuse women’s basketball is on the map.”