NCAA championship: UConn aims for unprecedented 4th consecutive title

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This is stating the obvious: No. 4 seed Syracuse has a daunting task ahead.

The Orange (30-7) face No. 1 Connecticut (37-0) in the NCAA women’s basketball national championship game Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Syracuse has never played for a title. In fact, this year is the first time the Orange have reached the Final Four.

Think there’s pressure? All the Orange have to do is the following:

Halt the Huskies’ winning streak, which stands at 74 games, the second-longest streak in NCAA history (UConn holds the record of 90 straight from November 16, 2008, until December 29, 2010).

Keep UConn seniors Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck from becoming the first players — male or female — to win four national championships.

Give UConn head coach Geno Auriemma his first loss in the title game (he’s 10 for 10 heading into Tuesday), and deny him from surpassing John Wooden for the most NCAA basketball titles of all time.

The Huskies don’t just win — they dominate. They’ve won every game this season by double digits. In the NCAA tournament, they’ve beaten their opponents by 52, 46, 60, 21 and 29 points.

Simply put, should Syracuse topple UConn, it would be one of the biggest upsets in U.S. sports history.

“I know this may sound silly to you guys, but we talk about this in our team,” Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “We talk about winning national championships. We talk about being in this game. We talk about not being happy just to be here. …Our goal is to win this game.

“And we understand who we’re playing. We understand where we are. Obviously Geno is the best coach in the business and Bre is the best player in the business. What more exciting time than to play the best? We’re excited and anxious to do that.”

Stewart, a forward who grew up in Syracuse, is the most decorated women’s college basketball player in history. Known to many as Stewie, Stewart is the only player in history to be honored as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player three times. No one has ever won the honor four times. Should the Huskies win it all again, Stewart will be the front-runner for the award.

“We know that we have one game left,” Stewart said. “We’re exactly in the position that we want to be in.”

Stewart also has bold predictions. When she was a freshman, she declared that she would win four championships with UConn. A bold statement considering that’s never been done before.

“Having said it and now being on the verge of being able to do it, those are amazing things that it’s like a storybook,” Auriemma said. “You couldn’t — if you wrote it, they would think it was a made-for-TV novel or something, miniseries. Just doesn’t happen that way. It doesn’t happen that way. And the fact that she’s got close to it and Moriah is that close to it and Tuck is that close to it, you just got to admire it. Really do.

“You have to admire her. She’s got a lot of guts, Stewie does. And you know what we talk about on our team a lot is courage. And it takes a lot of courage sometimes to say certain things and to be able to do certain things.

“And we’ve tried to explain to them that old saying that Winston Churchill said: courage is grace under fire. It’s not the absence of fear, it’s being able to do what you have to do while you’re afraid. And I think Stewie has been as good as anybody that’s ever played basketball at being able to do exactly what she has to do while being afraid.”

But one would think if anyone is afraid, it would be the Orange. Syracuse has lost to UConn 23 straight times, dating back to when the teams played in the old Big East Conference.

In his tenure as Syracuse head coach, Hillsman has never won against UConn. Aside from once losing by 6 points in 2008, his team always has lost by double digits, including a 54-point margin in 2009.

“We’ve lost by single digits,” Hillsman said. “We’ve lost by 50. So hopefully we can take some things that we’ve learned in those games from those losses and try to put together a game plan to stop them.”

By Jill Martin