Women's Basketball

Top-seeded Connecticut blows out No. 8 Syracuse, 94-64, ending SU’s quest for repeat Final Four run

Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer

The Orange couldn't stop the machine of Connecticut and its season ended at the hands of the Huskies for the second straight season.

STORRS, Conn. — To prepare for the four-time defending national champions, Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman didn’t sleep the past two nights. He studied hours of game film and scouting reports in a quest for completing the improbable: upsetting Connecticut, winners of 108 straight games.

Syracuse never had a chance. The shocks came one after the other after SU’s early 3-2 lead evaporated. In its 94-64 victory, Connecticut broke the Syracuse full-court press as if it was hardly there. All UConn’s players posed a threat from deep, which sucked the Syracuse 2-3 zone out and left open lanes for cutters. They methodically set up one another for 3-pointers on the wings and high-low passes for easy layups. Kia Nurse keyed UConn’s offensive display, scoring 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting from deep.

No. 1 overall seed Connecticut (34-0, 16-0 American Athletic) hasn’t lost since November 2014. This season, despite losing its top three players to the 2016 WNBA Draft, the Huskies reloaded and went undefeated. UConn looked every part of a four-time defending national champion in handling No. 8 seed Syracuse (22-11, 11-5 Atlantic Coast) Monday night in Gampel Pavilion on UConn’s campus, ending SU’s quest for a repeat NCAA Tournament run.

“We’ve just got to get better in every aspect of the game to beat a great team like that,” Hillsman said. “I’m very disappointed. The glass is empty.”

In a rematch of the 2016 national championship game, which Connecticut won by 31 points, the Huskies blew out the Orange on national television. The outcome is a reminder that UConn does not lose. The Huskies’ 109-game win streak rolls on while the careers end for Syracuse’s three best players: Alexis Peterson, Brittney Sykes and Briana Day.

With under three minutes left and SU down 33, Peterson came off the court for the final time in a Syracuse uniform. She hugged Hillsman for nearly 30 seconds, after she scored a team-high 25 points in the final game of her college career. When the buzzer sounded, Peterson and Sykes walked off the court together, hands draped over each other’s shoulders.

“We have one more chance to get something great accomplished,” Sykes said last week. The redshirt senior battled through two knee injuries to pioneer SU’s offense this season. She worked in tandem with ACC Player of the Year Peterson to form a killer one-two backcourt that averaged nearly 45 points per game. Monday, Sykes was held to five first-half points and 15 overall.

Syracuse is still a budding program. For eight straight years, Hillsman’s unit has won at least 20 games. Thirty wins last year and a march all the way to the national title game put the program on the national map. Monday night, in the earliest title-game rematch in women’s Tournament history, Connecticut showed why it again will charge into the Sweet 16 with ease.

“I mean, what can I say?” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Those first three quarters I just thought we were about as good as we can be.”

Auriemma had no preseason All-Americans entering 2016-17. Yet Connecticut beat the other three No. 1 seeds in the Tournament by double digits in the regular season — Notre Dame, Baylor and South Carolina — and is rolling amid another undefeated season. Auriemma’s powerhouse stands at a higher level than Syracuse. No matter how well the Orange played, the Huskies answered.

“It was a double whammy for Syracuse” Auriemma said. “We took away their biggest weapon (3-pointers) and we really hurt them with the 3s that we got.”

Nurse’s eight first-half 3-pointers broke the UConn record of 3s in an NCAA Tournament game. In the first half, the junior guard shot better from 3 (8-of-10) than UConn did on its layups (9-for-12). She even banked in a corner 3-pointer.

Moments after Nurse hit a 3-pointer, Desiree Elmore, Julia Chandler and Jade Phillips stared at her in awe as she stood near the SU bench. Twice in the second quarter, Nurse answered a Peterson deep ball with one of her own. Each time, it took her all of 12 seconds to spot up and drain the 3. She giggled her way back to defense.

“When we move the ball like that,” Nurse said, “it’s hard for the defense to keep up with it. To play like that offensively and to have that cohesiveness that we had out there today, it’s a big reason a lot of our shots were as open as they were.”

UConn’s outlet passes sparked a push up the court. After SU makes, UConn inbounded the ball before the Orange could match up. By the second quarter, whipping passes around the perimeter to the high post and baseline runners became rhythmic.  UConn’s 94 points was the third-highest total SU’s defense allowed all season. All but three of Connecticut’s 33 made buckets were assisted on.

In the second half, Syracuse found shooters early and showed some dribble penetration. Switching it up helped SU keep pace with UConn over the final 10 minutes. By then it was too late because the backbone of Syracuse’s defense faltered at the get-go.

It left little doubt of what was already plenty clear: No one is better than Connecticut.

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