Why it's run-and-done for so many UConn opponents

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 -- The host city of the Final Four was buffeted in recent days by winds that blew with the strength and stamina more familiar to West Texas than central Indiana. Trees toppled, power lines fell and trucks were swept off the highway.

Walking into the strongest swirling gusts, just staying upright at times proved a challenge.

It was, in other words, a decent approximation of how it feels to be caught in a UConn run. It offered some sense of what awaits Syracuse in Tuesday night's national championship game as it tries to pull off the biggest upset in tournament history.

Understanding UConn's success means understanding the hurricane that envelops its opponents when the Huskies make their move like a Tour de France rider breaking from the pack on a mountain ascent. With six minutes to play in the first half of Sunday's semifinal, Oregon State trailed UConn by a not-insurmountable nine points. Six minutes and a 17-5 run later, the second half was reduced to damage control.

And that was a mild run by UConn standards.

UConn does this to everyone, its runs as regularly scheduled as television timeouts. At least one will come Tuesday night. The challenge for Syracuse, like a pilot flying through a hurricane to reach the calm of the eye, is to stay aloft. That is a test of basketball tactics, to be sure. It is also a test of mental wherewithal, because UConn is the best women's basketball has to offer. And it is at its best during those runs.

"We play, going into games, knowing that other teams are going to make runs," Syracuse junior Briana Day said. "You just have to answer that and not get down on it. You have to make shots, you have to do something to turn the run around, like get a steal or a rebound. Any little thing you have to do to stop that run, that's what we're going to do."

It sounds like a good plan. It just isn't a new plan.

No one understands the task facing Syracuse and coach Quentin Hillsman better than Louisville coach Jeff Walz. It was just 36 months ago that Louisville stunned a top seed in a regional and emerged a surprise finalist opposite UConn. Those Cardinals came out in the championship game and led 13-8 at what would now be the closing stages of the first quarter.

Against all odds, Louisville was in the game. Then it wasn't.

"I can remember it because I tell people about it all the time," Walz said Monday. "Bria Smith is boxing out -- she's doing a great job and we've got another stop. Then here comes Breanna Stewart, her wrist is above the rim, and she tips it in. I looked down at [associate head coach] Steph Norman, and I was like, 'Is it OK if I clap?' I'd never seen that before. That's unbelievable.

"Then all of a sudden, they come up with a stop, they've got some energy and before you know it, I think it was 22-13 or something like that."

His memory was almost perfect. A stray free throw in the mix meant the score was 22-14 with a little more than 10 minutes to play in the half. Within two more minutes, it grew to 29-14.

And Louisville was as well prepared as a team could be in the situation. Not only had one of its leaders, Monique Reid, played in a national championship game against UConn four years earlier, but all of the Cardinals were familiar with the Huskies at a time when the two teams shared the Big East. That team also lost a big lead to a Baylor run in the Sweet 16 but rallied to win.

None of it prevented the UConn run. None of it made it easier to prevent, stall or answer.

"It comes at you, and it comes at you quick," Walz said.

Someone given a dollar every time a Syracuse player used the phrase "basketball is a game of runs" Monday could afford the best seat in Bankers Life Fieldhouse when the ball tips Tuesday. But there are reasons they believe it, in addition to saying it. The Orange withstood the wrong end of a 25-9 run against South Carolina in the Sweet 16. They took command of a regional final against Tennessee with a 16-2 run.

In Sunday's semifinal, an early 15-3 run forced a Washington team that played from ahead almost without exception in wins over Maryland, Kentucky and Stanford to play from behind.

"In the first quarter, when we started putting our pressure on them, you saw them getting a little rattled," Syracuse senior Brianna Butler said. "We definitely fed off that energy and knew that if we just picked it up even more, they would be on their heels more. We just wanted to give Kelsey Plum, who is a great player, a lot of discomfort."

So when they talk about stalling runs in the simplest of terms -- resetting momentum by getting a stop on one end and points on the other end -- it is based on real-world experience. For all but the handful who played against the Huskies as freshmen, it just isn't experienced with these runs.

Basketball may be a game of runs. It's just that UConn is usually the only team making them.

"You have to make shots, you have to do something to turn the run around, like get a steal or a rebound. Any little thing you have to do to stop that run, that's what we're going to do." Syracuse junior Briana Day

Although rarely challenged on the court when the cameras are on, they are challenged, and even defeated, in scrimmages and drills against the team's male practice players that sometimes pit five Huskies against as many as eight opponents.

"Our practice players do a really good job of challenging us every day," sophomore guard Kia Nurse said. "There are a lot of times when we're down, and then the next five to 10 possessions that we have, we have to kind of work our way back through their run and get a lead. So it's something we practice a lot, trying to get score-stop-score. That's usually what leads to our biggest runs."

The runs themselves are as much effect as cause. As Walz noted, they are the inevitable product of circumstances present only at UConn. It is UConn that gets Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore or Stewart, the unique talents capable of making plays like the one he recalled sparking a run in the final. And it is UConn where someone like Nurse, the leading scorer on a Canadian junior national team that beat Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Team USA over the summer, accepts and thrives in a role as a defensive stopper and, at best, fourth option offensively.

Connecticut's runs are so enveloping, escape so impossible, because they are the reflection of its collaborative philosophy. They are better physically and stronger mentally.

"You're in the moment, you're having so much fun, getting excited," Jefferson said of being at the eye of the hurricane. "And then you take a look up at the score and you're like 'Oh, all right.' So then you've just got to keep putting your foot on the gas because that's when you can either make or break the game."

Part of this is a basketball conundrum. Syracuse made its run against Washington, as against many teams this season, because those Huskies tried to pass over the defensive pressure by which the Orange thrive. Similarly, Syracuse likes to get the maximum possible volume of field goal attempts, even if not all of those are quality chances. If Syracuse forces shots and doesn't rebound, if its pressure doesn't stop Jefferson and Nurse, it will feed the runs. That, in turn, feeds panic and confusion.

"You can definitely see it," Jefferson said of the toll taken. "People get frustrated sometimes, whether teams start to argue with each other. Once that happens, it's like 'All right, we've got them. Let's go down and make a couple more buckets and we should be all right.' "

Walz and Louisville made and withstood runs to reach the 2013 final, just like Syracuse has in this tournament. Just like Hillsman, Walz has called timeouts and hammered home X's and O's to stop a surge. Just as Syracuse has this season, Walz had players on his best Louisville teams who took the burden of leadership on their shoulders and lead the others through the storms.

His teams weathered runs. With one exception.

"Not against UConn," he chuckled.