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On the Brink Of Making History, UConn Faces Syracuse In NCAA Title Game By Rich Elliott

POSTED April 05, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

INDIANAPOLIS – Senior Breanna Stewart had not yet walked off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the final time Sunday night. Only minutes before she had helped UConn dispatch Oregon State in the NCAA national semifinals.

Still, as Stewart conducted a postgame television interview, her mind was already on to the final hurdle the top-ranked Huskies needed to clear during their championship quest. She had no idea who they would play in the tournament final. But that did not stop her from saying that they were going to win the game.

This proclamation had nothing to do with cockiness. It had everything to do with the confidence that Stewart has in herself and on her teammates. Together against Syracuse (8:30; ESPN), they will attempt to make history tonight by becoming the first Division I women’s basketball team to win four straight national championships.

 “I think that we’ve been talking about that the entire year and throughout my entire career,’’ Stewart said. ``When this is the moment that we have prepared for, I’m not going to go and say that we are going to lose. Everyone knows that we want to win this game, that we want this national championship for a number of reasons. It’s some people’s first, some people’s second, some people’s third, and it will be our fourth. To end my college career with the other seniors, there is no other way I want that to happen. I believe we’re going to win. I think if we execute our game plan and do what we are supposed to do that we’re going to be OK.’’

UConn (37-0) has twice won three straight national championships (2002-04), losing in the Sweet 16 in 2005. Tennessee won three straight from 1996-98 before losing in the regional final in 1999. USC (1983-84) is the only other team to have won back-to-back championships.

Should UConn defeat Syracuse (30-7), it would claim its record 11th national championship. That would vault Geno Auriemma ahead of legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden for the most titles by any men’s or women’s Division I basketball coach.

Despite with all that is at stake, senior Moriah Jefferson had no problem with Stewart speaking her mind regarding tonight’s game.

``You embrace it,” Jefferson said. ``You come to Connecticut and everyone else is saying it so once we say it, it’s like a big deal, `Oh you believe the hype,’ but it’s not like that. It’s like we believe we are very confident in our ability to play. Because we feel like we’re so prepared and so ready, we feel like we’re invincible sometimes.’’

This will be the final time that Jefferson, Stewart and Morgan Tuck will play together as UConn teammates. Jefferson and Stewart are graduating. Tuck, who has one year of eligibility remaining, is expected to announce a decision on her future following the game.

Not only are they looking for a national championship grand slam, they can become the winningest recruiting class in NCAA history. Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck (150-5) are currently tied with former Huskies Lorin Dixon and Maya Moore (150-4, 2007-11).

``I think the senior class has done so much for this team, for this program and just for women’s basketball in general,’’ UConn sophomore Gabby Williams said. ``The things that those three have done no one else has ever done before. There’s never been a trio like that. And I think they need to go out the right way.’’

Syracuse, appearing in its first tournament final, is ranked fourth nationally in made 3-pointers (332) and 10th in 3-pointers made per game (9.0).

The Orange (30-7) set Final Four records by making 12 3-pointers and attempting 33 in a win over Washington Sunday. They are averaging 9.6 made 3-pointers on 28.6 attempts in the NCAA tournament (48-for-143), setting a tournament record for 3-point attempts and moving seven shy of breaking UConn’s record of 54 made 3-pointers set last season.

Senior guard Brianna Butler has set a Division I record with 128 3-pointers this season.

``The 3-point shot is one of the best weapons and maybe the greatest weapon in all of basketball,’’ Auriemma said. ``And it can make you win a national championship and it can make you lose a national championship. And I think defensively guarding the 3 becomes the most important thing you have to do and the hardest thing you have to do. And right now those guys are on a roll. And they're shooting it with a lot of confidence. We'll have to figure out a way to minimize that. I don't know that you can completely eliminate it, but I think we're going to have to figure out a way to minimize it (Tuesday) night.’’

Through the first 37 games, opponents are averaging 5.6 3-pointers and are shooting 33.1 percent against UConn. Defending the 3-pointer was a problem area early in the season as the Huskies allowed at least eight 3-pointers in six of the first 14 games.

However, through a great deal of work in practice, opponents have made eight 3-pointers in only three of the last 23 games.

 ``We had to change our mindset on how we were playing teams,” Jefferson said. “Before we were stopping (short of) the 3-point line trying to get a hand up. Now we make sure we get our toes on the 3-point line and still get a hand up. Even that small distance really contesting 3s makes it harder to make shots.”

The Huskies have won 23 straight games against Syracuse dating back to a 62-59 loss at Manley Fieldhouse Jan. 2, 1996. This is the first meeting between the teams since they met in the Big East tournament semifinals at the XL Center March 11, 2013.

``I've been in every possible situation against them,’’ Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. ``And so for us it's just about going to play. And I think the teams get overwhelmed with their speed and quickness and their strength. It is an overwhelming thing because they’re very good, but at least we understand that because we've seen it and we've experienced it. I think that experiencing it is the only way you can have a chance against it. So we're excited about the opportunity to play against the best.’’

The Huskies stand 40 minutes away from greatness. This is exactly where they hoped they would be once the regular season began. The time has come for them to finish what they started back in November.

``We know obviously that everybody on the team hasn’t been here for all four of (the national championships), but I think everyone feels like they are a part of history if we do it,’’ Tuck said. ``I think everyone is really on the same page. We can’t think about the past years. We have to think about this year. If we do it then we can think about the greatness we have been able to do.”

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