STORRS, Conn. -- The opening round in the Bridgeport Regional showcased two dominant performances from two familiar programs, the results of which yield a much-anticipated rematch of last year's NCAA championship game.
For just the seventh time in NCAA women's basketball tournament history, the teams from the previous season's national championship will meet in the next year's tournament when Syracuse and Connecticut play in Monday's second-round game. It's the first time such an occurrence has happened before the Final Four.
For a team that was not high on its No. 8 seeding in this year's bracket, Syracuse made an emphatic statement Saturday afternoon with an impressive 85-65 win over Iowa State. UConn, meanwhile, dispatched No. 16 seed Albany 116-55.
As they have all season, the Orange leaned on the senior guard tandem of Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes, who scored 25 and 28 points, respectively. But it was the play of freshman Gabby Cooper that perhaps most impressed. She posted a single-game Syracuse record eight 3-pointers, amounting to a 24-point performance. Syracuse held the Cyclones to 38.1 percent shooting while forcing 18 turnovers.
Confusion over the Orange's seeding was not isolated to Syracuse personnel. Immediately after the game, Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said, "If that's an 8-seed, I'd like to see how they came up with that." Fennelly added Syracuse to the list of top-tier opponents the Cyclones played all season -- a list that includes Baylor, Mississippi State and Texas.
"A seeding is a seeding; it doesn't matter who we come up against," Sykes said. "We just knew that when that bracket came out, we had to come out hard. It doesn't matter what seed we had, it could have been a 12-seed, we know what we are capable of."
While familiar faces will take the floor for Syracuse on Monday -- the Orange return four starters from last year's championship appearance -- the Huskies' narrative reads much the opposite.
A season ago, the Connecticut trio of Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart collectively outscored the Orange with 56 points on the way to the Huskies' fourth straight championship, an 82-51 victory. They moved on to become the first three picks of the WNBA draft. But if any team demonstrates that no player or core of players is irreplaceable, it would be this season's Huskies, who have yet to lose a game in the absence of last season's stars.
Just two players, juniors Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, logged more than 15 minutes in last year's title-game victory over the Orange. Senior guard Saniya Chong played just three minutes, sophomore Napheesa Collier played 15 and sophomore guard Katie Lou Samuelson did not play after suffering a broken bone in her left foot against Oregon State in the semifinals.
The Huskies have Crystal Dangerfield added to the mix Monday. The freshman guard put in an impressive performance off the bench in Saturday's easy victory over Albany -- UConn's 108th straight win. Dangerfield scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and went 4-of-7 from the 3-point line.
"It's good to have her coming off the bench and giving something new and just add on to what we already have," said Williams, who finished with a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds. "With that sixth-man role, I think she's doing a really good job of providing that spark. You can see her confidence growing and that's what we're going to need from her going through the tournament."
Leave it to the incomparably high expectations of the UConn program to be critical of a 61-point win, in a game that was largely over after a few minutes into the first quarter. Neither coach Geno Auriemma nor the UConn players were satisfied with their showing on the defensive end -- with Auriemma describing the team as being "out of sync" for much of the first half. While part of the blame was placed on the 12 days the Huskies had in between their American Athletic Conference championship game and Saturday's first-round matchup, Williams said the team was unprepared and not where it needed to be mentally.
"I think we just weren't in the right mindset and if we change our approach, I think we'll be much better on Monday," Williams said.
Auriemma said perimeter shooting will determine the direction of Monday's matchup against Syracuse. In the two games this season in which they've allowed double-digit 3-point field goals (13 against Tulsa on Jan. 17 and 11 against Temple on Feb. 22), the Huskies still managed to win by at least 40 points.
If Syracuse has a shooting performance like it did against the Cyclones on Saturday, the Orange connecting on 15 3-pointers on 29 attempts, Auriemma is well aware it could spell trouble for Connecticut.
"If [Syracuse has] one of those nights where they make 15 [3-pointers] of them, 18 [3-pointers] of them, that's a bad day for everybody else," Auriemma said. "But if it's one of those days where they have five, that's a bad day for them, bad things are going to happen. When you play teams like that, so much of their game is built around getting open 3s. Because they take so many of them, they're really good at getting them. You can't keep them from getting them, that's the thing."
For Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman, the goal is simple -- make baskets. In last year's final, the Orange shot just 35 percent, 10 percent on 3-pointers. When Syracuse struggles from the floor, so too does its defensive scheme, which is hallmarked by full-court pressure after made baskets.
"They did a really good job in the past of just taking us out of our offense, they're a very good defensive team," Hillsman said. "So we need to get the ball in the basket so we can set up our defensive pressure. That's a major part of our game. Hopefully we can shoot 40 percent, and get into our pressure and make them uncomfortable on the offensive end. If we shoot 20 percent, we'll have a hard time beating them."