Connecticut throttles Syracuse in national title game
Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer
INDIANAPOLIS — One at a time, Quentin Hillsman relieved his soldiers. First he plucked Brittney Sykes with three minutes left in her season. Then Cornelia Fondren.
“We had a long season,” Fondren said with tears creeping out of her eyes. “I feel like we just went out the best that we can. (Connecticut) took it.”
The last was Brianna Butler, who perhaps, more than anyone, Hillsman played vicariously through. The one who most personified her coach’s public demands to shoot, draining an NCAA-record 373 3-pointers through her career.
But even Syracuse’s most lethal weapon on offense couldn’t combat the last punch her team received in its magical March run. Three-time defending champion Connecticut.
The Orange didn’t offer much resistance, making only two 3-pointers (none in the second half) and sinking into a game-opening 9-0 hole. The Huskies (38-0, 18-0 American Athletic) pushed Syracuse (30-8, 13-3 Atlantic Coast) off course from the opening tipoff, and didn’t let SU settle into an offensive rhythm quick enough to have a fighting chance in its 82-51 loss in the national championship on Tuesday night.
The Orange came out of the locker room riding as high as any team that’d won 16 of 17 games would, relishing every second of borrowed time as a program that’d never won more than a single NCAA tournament game in a season. So two days after stretching out a 10-3 lead in the opening minutes of the Final Four, SU came out the only way Hillsman wanted them too: Firing.
“We were trying to get some of our excitement out,” Maggie Morrison said.
But excitement didn’t score any points. Alexis Peterson airballed Syracuse’s first-ever shot in a national championship game. Sykes tried dribbling through four Huskies defenders before her layup attempt met the right hand of Stewart. Butler tried beating a pesky UConn defense by shooting over it, but clanked her first 3 standing about five feet behind the arc.
She tried again and missed. Peterson missed again from deep. Sykes bounced out a jumper from the short corner. By the time Syracuse had a chance to look up instead of behind to get on defense, it was 9-0 and six shots had already gone awry.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Sykes said. “And we said from the beginning, UConn’s gonna go on their runs, and we have to learn how to answer them and go on ours.”
But only once did Syracuse pick up the call, and by the middle of the third quarter it was hard to make too much of a 16-0 run when the mountain to climb was once 33-points high. That’s how long it took SU to realize that following its patented run-and-gun system wasn’t going to work against the team that wasn’t going to be embarrassed on college basketball’s biggest stage.
In the meantime, the Orange was bullied on the boards and failed to gain traction in a game watered down by the team’s 40 missed shots. Syracuse’s best player couldn’t even see over Connecticut’s, as Peterson turned to SU’s bench and said, “I can’t see,” trying to inbound the ball past the lanky, 6-foot-4 frame of Stewart.
“It’s very tiring,” Briana Day said of trying to play catchup. “It just exerts a lot of energy.
“But you know, if that’s what you have to do to compete and just play hard than that’s what we had to do.”
Fondren lamented the feeling of her team’s third-quarter run, professing that it would’ve been a different game if SU played that way for 40 minutes. If that six-minute stretch had magically spread from first tick of the clock all the way to the final buzzer.
But in a 10-week span filled with nothing but magic, Syracuse’s had finally run out. It woke up from its dream, and the reality was ruthless against the kingpins of college basketball. For 40 minutes, every jumper seemed contested. Every layup had a swarm of arms around it. 3-point attempts hardly existed.
It’s last shot at history was it’s toughest one yet, and hardly grazed the net.
Published on April 6, 2016 at 3:16 am