Storrs, CT — If there ever existed a recipe to beat the UConn Huskies, one of the ingredients would definitely be to play physically. Syracuse started off the game with that in mind; the opening tip resulted in an on-the-floor tussle for the ball with five players total hitting the court.
Unfortunately, that was the only ingredient that Syracuse had in the kitchen tonight. The Huskies brought the heat and sent the Orange home with a 94-64 loss.
From the tip-off, Syracuse played with the right combination of tactics to stay in the game against the Huskies. They worked the ball in the post, employed a full court press to slow down UConn’s transition game, and weren’t afraid to put their bodies’ on the line on both ends of the floor. But it was clear early that UConn was on a mission to take their familiar place in the Sweet Sixteen.
Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman drew up a great play after an early 30-second timeout that resulted in an easy layup for Briana Day, making the score 9-7 in favor of UConn. But that’s the closest the Orange would get for the rest of the game.
Syracuse senior guard Alexis Peterson tried to break down the UConn defense, but the Huskies were just too long. Four possessions in a row ended in turnovers for the Orange, with three of those coming from Peterson, and Geno Auriemma’s squad capitalized on all of them and stretched the lead to double digits. And it would only get higher from there.
Meanwhile, UConn’s Kia Nurse showed up with a scorching shooting night, going 10 for 13 from the field. The Huskies adjusted to the full-court press by taking away Nurse’s normal ball-handling duties and stationing her further down the court. And honestly, head coach Geno Auriemma might want to institute that tactic full-time if it results in the same amount of open threes that Nurse saw in the first half.
The Huskies definitely had some extra motivation for the game, after Syracuse had spent the year preaching their case for the best backcourt in the country. And although Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes both can take over a game against any normal team, it’s different to play against Connecticut.
“It allows you to play with a bit of a chip on your shoulder,” Nurse said in reference to the Orange’s comments. And that chip might have led to Nurse’s tying the single-game women’s tournament record with 9 three-pointers.
It wasn’t just the lights out shooting that led to the rout, however; the ball movement that UConn showed throughout the game was awe-inspiring. From Nurse to the Huskies’ operative center in Gabby Williams, the passing was impeccable. Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman even had to recognize it.
“When you have five players who are really effective passers, it makes them tough to guard.”
Tough to guard might be the understatement of the century. UConn ended up with 33 field goals made, 30 of them assisted. That’s not just good, that’s downright ridiculous. To put that in perspective, Syracuse had eight assists on their 26 baskets.
Geno Auriemma described the Huskies’ completely unselfish play as “unusual” and “incredible,” and there are few who would disagree.
The ones who would disagree were wearing orange jerseys tonight. They would probably use the words frustrating and overwhelming. With two minutes left in the second quarter, Nurse hit a three-pointer to take her scoring total to 25 points; Syracuse’s point total at that point in the game? 25 points.
Even though Syracuse played a much better second half, to quote coach Hillsman, “when you go down 27, 30 points, it’s tough to make it up.” And that’s a hard pill to swallow for a Syracuse team that lost to UConn 11 months ago on the largest stage. Although Hillsman admits that losing to the Huskies two years in a row will keep him sleepless again for a few nights, he mentioned that Syracuse would have to climb that mountain to reach the pinnacle of NCAA basketball.
“Playing the best elevates your program and builds toughness in your program.”
That toughness is something that Auriemma and the Huskies seem to have found. Even after losing three major contributors last year, the team knows that the only ceiling they have is the one established.
In Auriemma’s words, “In order for us to not reach the goals we set for ourselves, we have to help the other team. And that’s capable of happening.”
But it did not happen against Syracuse, despite the relative tournament inexperience of UConn’s major players.
Syracuse needed to use their skillful three-point shooting to their advantage in order to have a chance in this game. And UConn held the Orange to 3-8 in the first half, while going 9-16 themselves. That’s certainly not helping the other team.
By the time the Orange started breaking down the defense and hitting their shots, the game was over. With the Sweet Sixteen in their sights, Auriemma and the Huskies can move on to the next target. For any member of the Husky faithful, to quote the head coach himself during the post-game press conference, and Ice Cube as well for that matter, “Today was a good day.”