INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t long after UConn’s overwhelming win over Oregon State in Sunday’s national semifinal that the Huskies realized what was next for them.
Then again, they’ve been thinking about it long before this season even began, like from the moment they walked off the floor in Tampa last April after winning their 10th national championship.
The Huskies play Syracuse in their 11th national championship game Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. They want an unprecedented fourth straight and record 11th overall national championship. Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck have been there for the past three.
“We are definitely confident and the experience we have helps,” Stewart said. “We’ve been here before and this isn’t our first time doing things. We know what it takes to get to this level, to get to this stage and to succeed on it. We’re going in with the mindset that we are going to win the national championship.”
The Huskies will play without freshman Katie Lou Samuelson, their most prolific 3-point shooter. She broke her left foot in the opening moments of the semifinal win on Sunday.
“This gives us a bit of a different look,” Tuck said. The Huskies will start sophomore Gabby Williams in her place.
Syracuse-UConn is a renewal of one of the time-tested Big East rivalries that ended when the schools parted ways for the Atlantic Coast Conference and American Athletic Conference.
The teams haven’t played since the 2013 Big East tournament and Syracuse hasn’t defeated the Huskies since 1996.
In terms of now, it’s a matchup of a team that depends on pressure defense and 3-point shooting (Syracuse) against a defense that struggled to defend the three in the early portion of the season.
In an 80-59 win over Washington on Sunday, the Orange took 33 3-pointers and made 12, four from Brianna Butler, now the NCAA’s single-season 3-point leader with 128.
The 12 3s were the second-most in a game in women’s Final Four history behind the 13 UConn made against Louisville in the 2013 national championship game.
“We talk about being in this game all the time. We talk about winning a national championship,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “The conversation is not about just being happy to be here. People asked us why we didn’t celebrate (after beating Washington) but our goal was not just to win that game.
“We want to win this game. We understand who we are playing. We understand where we are. Geno (Auriemma) is the best coach in the business and Breanna is the best player in the business. But what more of an exciting moment can you have other than playing the best?”
This season, the Orange shot 29.8 percent from 3 and made 8.9 3s per game. And they are ready to bring their skill set to the big stage.
“The 3-point shot is one of the best weapons in all of basketball,” Auriemma said. “It can make you win a national championship and it can make you lose a national championship.”
Regardless, the Orange, who force an average of 24 turnovers, are going to give it a try.
“UConn is a good team, but there is a reason both of us are here right now,” Syracuse junior Briana Day said. “They are a good team, we’re a good team and it’s going to be a very good basketball game. That’s what we’re looking at. We press for 40 minutes and we are very aggressive and active. And we rebound well. That’s a problem for any team. We are looking forward to it.”
Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson are also chasing their 151st victory, which would be the most of any senior class in NCAA history.
“We want to send the seniors off on a positive note and thank them for everything they have done for us and the program,” Kia Nurse said. “And at the same time, this is where you want to be. For us and for them this is very exciting.”
Jefferson said knowing that her college career will be coming to an end doesn’t seem real.
“I know I have one game left, but at the same time it feels like I have a hundred,” Jefferson said. “I’m just going to try to cherish every single moment I have on the court. I know the end comes (Tuesday), but it still feels like it’s a long time away. We’re going to focus in on our game plan because this is something we’ve all been waiting for.”
The opportunity to win four straight titles, which has never been done in the history of women’s basketball, has been a talking point with the senior class since they were freshmen.
“I don’t really know if we thought it could happen,” Tuck said. “But we knew that we were going to try and make it happen and it’s cool to see that it’s close to happening. … We knew we were going to work as hard as we could to make it happen.
And it gives Stewart, a native of North Syracuse, a chance to end her illustrious career playing her hometown team.
“It feels like everything is coming full circle,” Stewart said.
The Huskies tried to arrange a game with the Orange this season for Stewart but Hillsman could not fit it into the schedule.
“It’s ironic,” Auriemma said. “And it’s a great story.”
Tuck said Stewart will likely have extra motivation playing against the Orange.
“I think Breanna is upset that we couldn’t play at Syracuse this season,” Tuck said. “We appreciated that (nearby) Colgate gave us the chance to play instead because a lot of her friends and family got a chance to see her play. But I know that Stewie wanted to play at Syracuse, in her hometown against the team she grew up watching. It stunk that she wasn’t able to do that. So, I think she will use it as motivation for (Tuesday).”
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