Former Big East foes Syracuse, UConn to meet in title game

Hillsman: Syracuse has to play tough and poised (3:24)

Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman breaks down Syracuse's perimeter approach in its 80-59 win over Washington and how the Orange can shut down Breanna Stewart and Connecticut in the title game. (3:24)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Big East foes, Connecticut and Syracuse have played 49 times, and it occasionally got a tad testy between these programs. But who foresaw them meeting in the women's basketball national championship game?

That's what we'll have Tuesday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Huskies pounded Oregon State in Sunday's first semifinal, 80-51. Then the nightcap was nearly as one-sided, with the Orange beating Washington 80-59.

The best player in the women's college game, Syracuse native Breanna Stewart of UConn, faces the team from her hometown for what could be her fourth NCAA title. The last college game she will play is against Syracuse. Who could have predicted that?

This NCAA tournament has been a journey into rare air for Syracuse, which had never even played a Sweet 16 game until a little over a week ago, when the Orange upset Sioux Falls Region No. 1 seed South Carolina on March 25.

Then in their first Elite Eight, Syracuse beat eight-time national champion Tennessee. In its first NCAA semifinal, Syracuse knocked out another first-timer in Washington. And now ...

Well, it's No. 1 seed and undefeated UConn vs. No. 4 seed Syracuse for all the marbles.

"They're a great basketball team," Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said of the Huskies. "And the only thing I have going for me is that I was in the Big East. And we know how they play. So their speed and their quickness is not going to shock us.

"That conference makes you tough. When you're coaching against Hall of Famers -- Geno is the best in the business. We're not going to sit here and say he's not. You play against Notre Dame and Louisville -- that was a tough conference. I grew up in that conference."

Hillsman, who took over at Syracuse in 2005, is short-changing himself, though, to say that all he has going for him is past experience in the former Big East. His team has played exceptionally well throughout this NCAA tournament.

UConn and Syracuse might have faced off during the regular season; the Huskies wanted to so they could give Stewart a homecoming game in Syracuse.

But Hillsman said it didn't fit into his program's schedule. He insisted much of scheduling is set two years in advance, and it just couldn't get done.

Whether the reality is that Hillsman didn't want to subject his players to a game in their house in which an opposing player would be celebrated -- well, only he knows for sure. He said he and Stewart and her family have always maintained a good relationship, even though she did not go to school there.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Stewart wasn't the first player for which the Huskies have had a hard time scheduling a homecoming game.

"The Big East made me grow up a little bit, and made me a better coach." Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman

Asked about it Saturday after receiving the Associated Press coach of the year award, Auriemma said he didn't hold any ill will toward Hillsman or Syracuse. Stewart's homecoming game instead was at Colgate, 40 miles southeast of Syracuse in Hamilton, New York.

On that same night, Syracuse played Coppin State, winning 88-56 in front of 335 fans at the Carrier Dome. The next game, the Orange lost at home to Arizona State.

Even as of late January, there wasn't much to suggest that Syracuse would be facing UConn in the Final Four. At that point, Syracuse had to be focusing on just making the NCAA tournament. The Orange were 14-6 after a 71-53 loss at home to Louisville on Jan. 25, and it was time for them to regroup.

Hillsman discussed things with his team, and one of the decisions made was to not go quite as hard in practice and save more for the games. Since then, Syracuse's only loss was to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament championship game.

The Orange have been on quite a roll, so much so that if they were facing anybody but UConn on Tuesday, you'd probably be hard-pressed to bet against them. They will be the third former Big East team in the last four years to face the Huskies in the NCAA title game. UConn beat Louisville in 2013 and Notre Dame the last two seasons.

"The Big East made me grow up a little bit, and made me a better coach," said Hillsman, who also plugged his current conference, saying how the ACC helped prepare his team this season. "We have a chance on Tuesday night to play the best team in the country, to play against a dynasty ... a team that really forgot how to lose."

Syracuse and UConn first played in women's basketball on Dec. 28, 1980, and the Orange won the first seven in the series. But overall, UConn leads the series 37-12, including having won the last 23 in a row. Twenty of those 23 victories have been by 20 or more points.

The last time the Orange beat the Huskies was Jan. 2, 1996, the season after UConn went undefeated and won the national championship. That 62-59 loss at Syracuse was only one of four defeats the Huskies had in 1995-96, when they lost in the national semifinals to Tennessee.

Since then, the series has been all UConn. The teams' last meeting was March 11, 2013, in the Big East tournament semifinals; UConn won 64-51. The next season, Syracuse moved to the ACC, and UConn went to the newly created American Athletic Conference.

One particular incident in the teams' Big East days drummed up some controversy. After a 107-53 UConn win over Syracuse on Jan. 17, 2009, in Hartford, Connecticut, there was a "tripping incident" after the handshake line involving then-Syracuse player Nicole Michael and Auriemma.

Auriemma shouted something at Michael when they passed each other in the handshake line, and when they turned and crossed paths a second time, Auriemma appeared to stumble on Michael's foot.

"All we can do is go out and play our game and put a game plan in place that we feel like would be successful. So we're looking forward to the challenge." Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman

The incident was even chronicled at the time on ESPN's Outside the Lines program, on which Auriemma offered this explanation:

"I probably shouldn't have, you know, taken an opportunity to say, 'Hey, if you're going to be in the shake-hands line, you know, have a little more respect for adults,' " Auriemma said. "I probably should have just kept my mouth shut and not said anything. Then, when I left, there was a little toe dancing it seemed like. I don't know what happened, but it was nothing more than that."

That's all water under the bridge now, and since the teams are no longer in the same league, whatever degree of rivalry they had is somewhat dulled. Although, like so many teams vs. UConn, it's hard to have a rivalry when one side hasn't lost to the other in 20 years.

But Syracuse will try to pull the upset of the ages Tuesday.

"All we can do is go out and play our game and put a game plan in place that we feel like would be successful," Hillsman said. "So we're looking forward to the challenge. It's going to be a great night for our kids, and we're looking forward to competing against the best."