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INDIANAPOLIS — In a moment of contemplation last Saturday afternoon, following winning his eighth AP coach of the year award, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma admitted this was not one of his better coaching jobs. As he said this, his team was 36–0 and two wins away from its fourth straight national title.
“I think it goes back to how it’s getting much harder to connect with every kid on your team in the way that you need to,” Auriemma said. “What we present to the general public is one thing. What we struggle with internally is something completely different. I have been closer to other teams than this team. It hard to get close to kids these days, harder than ever. As I get older, they seem to get younger. They come with a whole different stuff in their suitcases than they did 25 years ago.”
Outwardly, there has been no struggle. Where Auriemma has struggled—if that’s even the right word—is with the impossible task of getting the rest of his players to keep up in all facets with his three All-Americas and veteran leaders (senior forward Breanna Stewart, senior guard Moriah Jefferson and junior forward Morgan Tuck).
Auriemma later thought about what he had said and conceded maybe he was being too hard on himself. “It’s trying to mix these three seniors who don’t know anything except winning national championships with younger guys that really have no idea how to keep up with Stewie, Tuck and Moriah,” Auriemma said. “Because no matter how much they try they can’t keep up. So you have this great divide and to try to keep those things together and that has been really, really hard.”
It looks easy, but it rarely is, even for dynasties. UConn will play for its fourth consecutive championship on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. A win over Syracuse will give the trio of Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck the most wins for any group (151) in the history of women’s basketball. They will become the first NCAA Division I women's basketball team to win four straight titles and Auriemma will break John Wooden's UCLA record by winning his 11th championship. They will have achieved the perfect legacy.
Those who have covered the women’s tournament for years can point to many years where you could make a legit argument for UConn’s championship game opponent beating the Huskies. This is not one of those years. Short of catastrophic injury or the coldest shooting in title game history, UConn will win on Tuesday night. It would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport if the result is reversed.
That Syracuse, a No. 4 seed, made it to this point is a great story. The Orange are an emerging power with a terrific coach (Quentin Hillsman received my AP coach of the year vote), but UConn has too many spots on the on the floor where they can attack. They have matchup advantages everywhere, and Syracuse really has no answer for Stewart or Tuck. “They can hit from everywhere,” said Oregon State All-America guard Jamie Weisner, whose team lost to UConn by 29 points in the national semifinal on Sunday. “People come in off the bench and there's no lag. They expose every weakness and make you pay for it, force you into things you don't want to do. And then offensively, I mean, they have weapons everywhere, every position.”
UConn assistant coach Marisa Moseley drew the assignment to scout Syracuse. She’s watched seven of their games in the last week and what stands out for her is how the Orange attempt to press for 40 minutes and then fall back into a 2-3 zone. They bring their wings up at times on defense to give the zone a bit of a 3-2 look. The problem for Syracuse is that UConn has four perimeter scorers and post players who often play as stretch forwards. They have the skills to beat that zone.
On defense, Syracuse likes to press and jump the lanes on passes—they rattled Washington with their defense in the first half and got to seemingly every loose ball in their 80–59 win in the other national semifinal game. Again, here’s the problem: UConn has superior athletes to any team Syracuse has pressed or stretched this year. “How we handle their pressure to start—if we are able to attack for layups or knock our jump shots in—I think it will be a long night for them because they hang their hat on disrupting you and turning you over,” said Moseley.
In theory the Orange 3-2 zone could provide some trouble if UConn doesn’t shoot well from the outside. Syracuse held Washington to 29.0% shooting from the field, but nothing suggests that will happen. UConn shot 56.7% (34-of-60) against Oregon State, the best Final Four performance in program history. Hillsman, the Syracuse coach, said there is no time to change with his team does to prepare for UConn. “I don't know if we can play any other way right now,” Hillsman said. “That's what we do. And we've had some success doing that. We understand that they're a very balanced team. Multiple ballhandlers, they have quickness. And their post players can handle the ball. But we've got to try to do what we've done to get to this point. I don't think we can get to the last game in the season and change what we do.”
Auriemma will look to get Tuck going early given how great she has been shooting in the last eight games. She torched Oregon State for 16 first-half points and had hit four three-pointers by the end of the game. The scary thing in the blowout win over Oregon State was that Jefferson and Stewart only picked their spots to attack and that was mostly in the second half with a comfortable lead. While UConn hates to lose the promising freshman Katie Lou Samuelson—she suffered a broken left foot against Oregon State—sophomore forward Gabby Williams and freshman forward Napheesa Collier gave UConn exceptional play off the bench, especially in the first half. UConn’s bench playing well is bad news for Syracuse.
On offense, Moseley said Syracuse loves to ball-screen through junior center Bria Day. They also will look to drive and dish and fire a ton of threes as a volume shooting team. The 12 three-point field goals made by Syracuse against Washington were the second most in women’s Final Four game in history. The Orange have an excellent outside shooter in senior guard Brianna Butler (who set an NCAA single-season record with her 128th three-pointer on Sunday night) and a nice stretch forward in Day. The excellent point guard Alexis Peterson makes the team go. She is quick, but she’s about to face the quickest point guard in the country in Jefferson.
For all its success, UConn rarely gets enough credit for its team defense. They switch defenses to keep teams off balance and given their length, they end up deflecting a ton of balls.
“As good as they are offensively, they can take liberties on the defensive end,” said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck. “That's what they do. That's what makes them good. They're switching defenses. We haven't seen a box and one for a while. We saw one. The things that we did, they took away.”
Aureimma is well aware of how well Syracuse is playing and they come into the championship game playing with house money. “How dangerous are they? Just ask all the teams that they've beaten the last couple of weeks,” Auriemma said. “They're the kind of team that wins in the NCAA tournament because they're fearless and they make shots. The highest premium there is at this time of the year is teams that can make shots, and they make shots. They make shots under pressure, they make tough shots, they make big shots, and they don't just make them from one person and they don't just make them from one spot. They are fearless.”
But Auriemma has players made of the same cloth. Four years ago Stewart verbalized that she wanted to win four titles at UConn and Auriemma has always admired her for putting that out for public consumption. She told ESPN after the Oregon State game that UConn was going to win on Tuesday and her résumé suggests she can back up her words. Stewart is averaging 17.3 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks over her three title games. It would be foolish to bet against her on Tuesday night.
Prediction: UConn 79, Syracuse 62