INDIANAPOLIS -- Connecticut and Syracuse will both be playing for history Tuesday night (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 ET). The Huskies are going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship. Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck are trying to be the first players, men or women, to win four. Coach Geno Auriemma is looking to move past UCLA's legendary John Wooden with an 11th title. With a win, UConn could extend the second-longest winning streak in women's history to 75 games and the longest NCAA tournament streak to 24.
Syracuse would make history simply by stopping UConn. An Orange victory would qualify as the biggest upset in women's NCAA title-game history.
For the fourth straight year since conference realignment changed the basketball landscape, the NCAA championship will be decided by two teams from what most refer to as the "old" Big East. Louisville and UConn met for the 2013 title, while the Huskies played Notre Dame in 2014 and 2015. The Huskies won all three of those games, but going back to those Big East days, the Irish had some success against UConn. Syracuse did not, losing 23 straight to Connecticut. The last Orange win in the series came in 1996, when Syracuse stunned the then-No. 2 Huskies. UConn had one championship then.
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman joked after Sunday's win against Washington in the national semifinals that he would one day love to be "bad for the game," referencing the debate that overtook tournament coverage about what impact Connecticut's dominance has meant to the sport. If Hillsman and his Orange want to reach that status, pulling a shocker Tuesday night would be the place to start.
Why they'll win the national title
Connecticut: When Auriemma became emotional on the days after receiving the Associated Press Coach of the Year award Saturday, he explained that it was because he was realizing how special it is to get to the Final Four and that as he gets closer to the end of his career, he has realized that getting to one isn't a given (UConn just makes it look that way).
The 10-time NCAA championship coach could just have easily gotten teary-eyed because this weekend he will be saying goodbye to Stewart and Jefferson, and likely Tuck (she is a redshirt-junior who is eligible for the WNBA draft), who with one more win would become the most accomplished trio he's ever coached at UConn.
"Syracuse wins with volume -- more shots taken, more turnovers forced, more rebounds grabbed, more chaos caused. ... Syracuse isn't the best team, the biggest team, the most accomplished team. Just the most unorthodox."
They proved again Sunday night against Oregon State. Even a bad night for Stewart resulted in 16 points and eight rebounds. When Stewart was struggling early, Tuck became the lead Husky and finished with 21 points and made four 3-pointers. Jefferson ran the team as proficiently as any point guard does at any level of basketball.
Sunday also proved there is help when needed and a future when these three are gone. Sophomore Gabby Williams defended brilliantly with her long wingspan and athleticism and scored eight points. Napheesa Collier picked up two steals and two blocks to go with eight points. Those two not only offset Stewart's unproductive first half (2 points, 2 field goal attempts, 3 rebounds), but also made everyone around the UConn team feel better about the loss of Katie Lou Samuelson for Tuesday's game. The freshman starter suffered a broken bone in her left foot in the first half Sunday and will miss her first championship game.
The Huskies enter the championship game leading the country in scoring offense, scoring defense, assist-to-turnover ratio, blocked shots and fewest fouls. That kind of diverse dominance breeds the confidence to overcome a key loss like Samuelson and prompt Stewart to declare after beating Oregon State that UConn would win again Tuesday.
Syracuse: Given that Connecticut hasn't lost in more than two seasons and none of the Huskies' previous 74 opponents even came within single digits. it's easy to say no team has a chance to beat them. Syracuse just might. The Orange weren't any of those 74 teams and Syracuse doesn't play like any of them, either.
UConn dominates with efficiency and execution. Syracuse wins with volume -- more shots taken, more turnovers forced, more rebounds grabbed, more chaos caused. The Orange are about as unconventional a team as Connecticut has faced during this era of dominance. Syracuse isn't the best team, the biggest team, the most accomplished team. Just the most unorthodox.
Connecticut leads the nation in field goal percentage. Syracuse doesn't care about that statistic at all. But the Orange are third in 3-point attempts. Syracuse is fourth in the country in offensive rebounds; shoot it more than the other team and go get the ones that don't go in. Syracuse also leads the nation in both turnovers forced and turnover margin. The rebounding and the turnover ratio lead to more possessions. More possessions lead to more shots. More shots lead to more points. It's a plan analytically devised by assistant Vonn Read that has worked at its best in the tournament. Syracuse pounded Washington into submission by dominating in all of those categories Sunday night.
Pulling off that kind of success in those areas against UConn is a different story, but it is different and something the Huskies haven't seen. Connecticut playing against the Syracuse style might be the last unknown for the Huskies.
The three keys
1. The Syracuse press: The Orange crippled Washington almost from the start with their running, trapping, passing-lane-jumping, full-court defense Sunday. In the regionals the pressure worked more to wear down South Carolina and Tennessee.
In its five tournament games, Syracuse has forced an average of 20.6 turnovers. No team handles pressure moments like the Huskies. Connecticut only averages 11.8 turnovers per game. Washington wasn't poised. There is no chance UConn won't be for an entire 40 minutes.
One team consistently handled Syracuse's press this season, and that was Notre Dame. UConn knows that playbook, too. In a pair of wins against the Orange -- by 28 and 11 points -- the Irish collected a pile of easy shots by beating the pressure with short passes to open space and limiting the dribbling against it. There's no chance that strategy slips by Auriemma and his staff.
2. Jefferson vs. Peterson: Alexis Peterson is Syracuse's best and most important player. Jefferson is UConn's second-best and possibly most important player. This matchup is huge between a pair of point guards standing 5 feet, 7 inches.
They each pride themselves on being extensions of their demanding coaches on the floor. Ballhandling, quickness, leadership, finding teammates in the right spots and timely jump shooting accuracy characterize both Jefferson and Peterson.
Syracuse will play its typical zone, so the two won't always be matched up one-on-one, but if Peterson can outplay Jefferson that would go a long way to give the Orange a chance.
3. Syracuse picking its poison: Oregon State elected to jam up the paint to keep 6-6 center Ruth Hamblin anchored near the basket against Connecticut. The strategy worked in limiting Stewart's touches and production in the first half. But that left Tuck with open shot after clear path after open shot. She torched the Beavers with little resistance, scoring 16 points in the first half.
Syracuse and its high-energy, hard-working defense have done a terrific job of taking out the opponents' best player with traps and overplays. Washington's Kelsey Plum was harassed all game and shot just 5 of 18 with six turnovers. South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell was 3 of 11 and held to eight points. Kelsey Minato of Army, the all-time leading scorer in the Patriot League, shot 3 of 14 against the Orange and had just 10 points.
These are all guards, however. Two of UConn's best players are big forwards who stand 6-4 and 6-2. Perhaps if Syracuse focused on taking Jefferson out of the game like it did with Plum and Minato, two other point guards, the Orange could limit all of what UConn is trying to do. No one else has specifically executed that strategy and Syracuse does plenty that other teams don't. This plan could be worth trying, too.
The names you know
Connecticut's Breanna Stewart: Little is left to be said about the greatness of Stewart, which is why Sunday's first-half performance was such a surprise. Two quick fouls threw off Stewart's rhythm against Oregon State. While it was a far cry from her averages of 20.5 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in the tournament's first four games -- it was shaping up to be the best tournament of her career -- she still managed to play 35 minutes and produce 16 points and eight rebounds. Her chances of winning a fourth Final Four Most Outstanding Player might be in jeopardy, but the opportunity for a fourth title hasn't been diminished at all.
Syracuse's Alexis Peterson: She has led the Orange in scoring in the three most important games in the program history: 26 against South Carolina, 29 against Tennessee and 18 against Washington. The junior point guard has also been the head of the press that has been the difference-maker between a team that never made it past the second round to one that is playing for a national championship. Her coaches cite Peterson's transformation into a full-blown leader as what changed Syracuse's season and led the Orange to the season's final game.
Connecticut's Morgan Tuck: She certainly changed the game against Oregon State, taking over when Connecticut needed her most. Tuck has been content playing second option to Stewart most nights, but is completely capable of being No. 1 if the circumstances call for it. Outside and in, she is dangerous and unfazed by any moment.
Syracuse's Brianna Butler: With so much depth and balance, the game-changer for Syracuse could have gone in many directions. Nine players scored and had at least one rebound against Washington. But no member of the Orange can turn a game as quickly as Butler. She follows Hillsman's strategy to a perfection: Keep shooting and eventually enough will go in. Butler led the nation in 3-point attempts and set a new single-season record for makes with 128 with her four against Washington. Butler's ability to make 3's in bunches could keep Syracuse in the game.