By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Before 2014, the Orange didn’t have an NCAA tournament victory to their name. They had never advanced to the Sweet 16 until 11 days ago, when they knocked off top-seeded South Carolina on March 25. The wins kept coming. They took down perennial powerhouse Tennessee in the Elite Eight and rolled past upstart Washington in the Final Four.
Their reward for the program’s historic run is a shot at the behemoth UConn Huskies (37-0), winners of 74 consecutive games, 23 straight tournament games and three national titles in a row. Tuesday’s national championship game tips off at 8:30 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and will be televised on ESPN.
“We are just ready to go out there Tuesday and make history; that is our mindset right now,” Syracuse junior center Briana Day said. “We want to win. We are not going out there to play and just show up. We want to win the game.”
Syracuse (30-7) has paused to celebrate along the way, but the end goal has been to win a national championship, a lofty goal given the program had never before made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The chances of a title, let alone a berth in the NCAA tournament, this season looked bleak when the team fell to 14-6 after an 18-point home loss to Louisville on Jan. 25.
Since that loss, the Orange have won 16 of 17 games. Their only loss came to Notre Dame in the ACC championship game, the program’s first appearance in that game.
Syracuse finished third in the ACC regular season standings at 29-7 overall and 13-3 in conference play. Seeded No. 4 in the NCAA tournament, the Orange are the lowest seed to play in the national championship game since No. 5 Louisville in 2013. Head coach Quentin Hillsman said this is his best team in 10 seasons at Syracuse, although it’s not his most talented team.
“They really started to believe in what we do,” Hillsman said. “And I think that’s a lot of my high school coach coming out of me and my dad, just being stubborn. You have these moments where they just won’t do it, and I think that the more we push them and the more we put that into their minds that this is the way to win basketball games: You can shoot a low percentage and win basketball games the way we were playing right now.”
Hillsman spoke about focusing on controlling the things they can control: Energy, effort and attitude. The Orange won’t be changing their signature style of pressure defense and shot quantity over quality.
“UConn is a great team, and they have been here and know what to expect, but this is why we play the game,” point guard Alexis Peterson said. “We are going to come out with the same mindset like we have been through the whole tournament and compete, and not back down, and we’ll do what we do. We can be very effective, but we have to come out with the mentality that we’re just as good as them.”
It’ll be a battle of former Big East rivals in the title game for the fourth straight season. The Huskies defeated Louisville in 2013 and Notre Dame each of the past two seasons.
Syracuse, now in the ACC, has lost 23 games in a row to UConn, a member of the AAC. Most players were 2 years old when the Orange last beat the Huskies on Jan. 2, 1996.
UConn is led by the trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. The combination of the Huskies’ size, length and athleticism has helped them to win every game this season by double figures.
“The thing about UConn is everybody that pops up to catch the ball can shoot it, pass it and drive,” Hillsman said. “So we’ve just got to have some toughness and guard the ball and get matched up.”
Having success shooting 3-pointers could be one way for Syracuse to take down UConn. Hillsman said the goal has been to make 10 3-pointers per game; the Orange made 12 in the Final Four win over Washington, a national semifinal game record.
The Orange average 9 3-point field goals per game, with senior Brianna Butler accounting for 3.5 of those. She set the NCAA single-season record with her 128th 3-pointer in the Final Four victory.
“[This being my last game] hasn’t hit me just yet,” Butler said on Monday. “It is going to be a great feeling. It’s bittersweet. I wouldn’t want to play any other team for my last game. To be on a big stage is really exciting. After the game, it will probably hit me hard that it’s my last college game. But for now I am just looking forward to playing.”