Huskies aren't burdened by pressure in pursuit of four-peat

Pressure in Final Four finals (1:51)

LaChina Robinson and Carolyn Peck of espnW discuss the amount of pressure Connecticut and Syracuse face in the upcoming Final Four championship game. (1:51)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Wrestling legend Cael Sanderson calls the feeling "peace." The word former volleyball standout Blair Brown Lipsitz uses is "relief." But for basketball's Kellie Harper, the memory of her last college competition doesn't bring either of those feelings. Just the opposite, in fact, because the Tennessee Volunteers lost in the 1999 regional finals to Duke, preventing them from winning four straight national titles in the late '90s.

"I'm barely over it now," said Harper (née Jolly), the former point guard.

UConn is vying for a fourth NCAA title in a row Tuesday, something that hasn't been done before in Division I women's basketball. Athletes winning four consecutive national championships -- maxing out on titles, as it were -- hasn't happened much in any sport. If the Huskies beat Syracuse on Tuesday, it would put them in some exclusive company, and Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck would become the first NCAA basketball players, men or women, to win four titles in a row.

Sanderson won four individual titles with a flawless 159-0 record while wrestling for Iowa State from 1998-2002. Lipsitz was a key player on Penn State's four consecutive NCAA volleyball championship teams from 2007-10. Both are now college coaches, and they praised what UConn is trying to do.

"It's not easy, and once you have that target on your back, it's gets even harder," said Lipsitz, head coach for Buffalo volleyball. "Everybody wants to play their best against you."

When she came to UConn, Breanna Stewart said her goal was to win four championships with the Huskies. There was no equivocation about that, and now she's one win away from accomplishing it.

"You've got to admire her; she's got a lot of guts, Stewie does," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. "What we talk about on our team a lot is courage. It takes a lot of courage sometimes to say certain things and to be able to do certain things."

Like Auriemma, assistant coach Chris Dailey has been at UConn since 1985 as part of 10 championship teams. Dailey said Stewart's statement back in 2012 made the stakes higher, but also helped the process.

"Once you openly say it nationally," Dailey said, "then you give us [as coaches] the permission to say, 'OK, Stewie, that's what you really want to do? Then we're going to show you this is how you're going to have to operate to give yourself that chance.'"

Pressure is what you make of it

Now that the Huskies are a victory away from four in a row, to what degree do they feel pressure? Frankly, it doesn't seem as if they are bothered by that at all.

"I wouldn't say pressure," Tuck said of what the Huskies are experiencing going into the title game. "Right now, it's just being excited. The pressure may kind of turn up, but if it does, it's good pressure."

"I wouldn't say pressure. Right now, it's just being excited. The pressure may kind of turn up, but if it does, it's good pressure." Morgan Tuck on what UConn is experiencing heading into the title game

Stewart was asked if the Huskies ever got rattled this season, and she truthfully said they hadn't. Nor does she feel any extra weight of having said what she did coming into UConn.

"I don't wish that I hadn't said that I want to win four national championships," Stewart said. "I'm on the verge of getting it, and have the opportunity to play [Tuesday] night to live up to my words."

None of this should be mistaken for complacency, because that's not how Auriemma and his program operates. He is always able to envision a potential thunderstorm despite the bluest sky. Moriah Jefferson said she can tell that Auriemma feels, if not pressure, a strong sense of mission to help her and her fellow seniors win this fourth championship.

The confidence that Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck bring into the title game reflects the diligent preparation they've put into their craft for four years.

That's what both Sanderson and Lipsitz said they relied on, too, when going into the last competitions of their college careers.

"You just have to continue to compete with enthusiasm, and have the same attitude and approach that you started with your first year. And I think if there is pressure, it's a good thing." Four-time NCAA champion wrestler Cael Sanderson

"You just have to continue to compete with enthusiasm, and have the same attitude and approach that you started with your first year," Sanderson said. "And I think if there is pressure, it's a good thing. Hey, if you don't like the pressure, all you have to do is lose.

"That's something my coach told me when I was going through that undefeated streak, and that had a great impact on me. Because I realized, 'I want this.' That makes a big difference."

Lipsitz said that Penn State coach Russ Rose, like Auriemma, has the ability to keep his team focused on the so-called mundane details of every day. That way, by the time the Nittany Lions were in the NCAA final each time, they felt like even those big-time matches were just an extension of what happened in practice.

Which might sound like a lot of hooey, but it's not.

"It really is about maintaining the principles and foundation of how you got there in the first place," Sanderson said. "That's why I don't think there's any magical answer.

"When you're as good as UConn is, you expect to win, right? But you also have to hate to lose so much that you'll do everything right and make the sacrifices. And you have to be unwilling to get discouraged if things aren't going well in a game."

With the Huskies, that hasn't happened in quite a while; they've won 74 games in a row. Their last loss was in November 2014, and their last loss before that was in March 2013.

Sanderson, though, didn't have any losses in college, yet he does recall one match during his senior year that was worrisome. It was against the wrestler ranked second in his weight class, someone he'd beaten handily before but was scrambling with this time.

"I remember that urgency just short of panic: 'I need to score my points,'" Sanderson said. "When you're used to things going your way right from the start and building a lead early, it's different when you are in a battle.

"That's another thing that can be a challenge for a dominating team: If they're not used to having to fight for a win, it's new territory for them and something they have to be prepared for."

Lipsitz's Nittany Lions actually were in peril in three of their final four appearances with matches that went five sets. They won 3-2 in their 2007 final against Stanford, in their 2008 semifinal against Nebraska in Omaha and in their 2009 final against Texas.

In the latter, Penn State was down 2-0, but won the next three sets against the Longhorns for the championship. Lipsitz recalled that Rose didn't get rattled despite the Nittany Lions being in such a big hole, and they were able to regroup and win.

"I remember making multiple huge mistakes in important times in that match," Lipsitz said. "And he would call a timeout and say, 'OK, get the next one.'"

When it doesn't work out

But sometimes, the giant falls. Harper's Tennessee team was unbeaten as national champion in 1998, and seemed well on its way to a fourth straight title in 1999. But Duke tripped up the Lady Vols in the NCAA Elite Eight at Greensboro Coliseum, a game that ended with Tennessee seniors Chamique Holdsclaw and Harper crying on coach Pat Summitt's shoulder.

"I've been able to reflect back and assess that season, and I think we didn't enjoy the process," said Harper, who is now a coach at Missouri State. "We did not get better throughout that season. I think all we wanted to do was play for the national championship. I don't know that we felt pressure going into that Elite Eight game; I just don't think we were ready."

Which is not what you'd expect of a Summitt-coached team. But Harper said Summitt actually recognized what was going on during that season, and was "pulling out her hair" trying to get her team to see it, too.

"The last year, it's like we just wanted to fast-forward and play that championship game. ... That's where Geno and that staff have done an amazing job keeping [UConn] focused on the task at hand." Three-time NCAA champion Kellie Harper

"I think we enjoyed winning and the process of the season for my first three seasons," Harper said. "But the last year, it's like we just wanted to fast-forward and play that championship game. And that's not how it works.

"We didn't do that intentionally. But a little bit of human nature just caught up to us. That's where Geno and that staff have done an amazing job keeping that team focused on the task at hand. They get better after every win, and I don't think we did that my senior year."

The way it ends

Sanderson has been a huge success as a coach at Penn State; his teams there won four NCAA titles in a row (2011-14) and then won the national championship this year. He certainly knows how to inspire as a coach, because nobody wrestled better than he did in college.

What went through Sanderson's mind when he walked off the mat undefeated as a collegian?

"I remember an overwhelming sense of peace," he said. "I had accomplished the mission, and it was something I'd been thinking about for three years. I hadn't been worried about going undefeated as a freshman. But after that year, everybody kept bringing it up, and you had to think about it.

"So I think 'peace' is the best word; you don't have a worry in the world -- at least for a little while. You just feel great."

Lipsitz's Nittany Lions actually weren't the favorite going into the NCAA tournament her senior year, despite having won the title the previous three seasons. Penn State was the No. 4 overall seed in 2010. Yet that ended up being the Nittany Lions' most drama-free run to the title of those four years. They lost just one set, in the Elite Eight, and dominated Texas and California in the final four with 3-0 sweeps.

"The feeling was, 'Whew!'" Lipsitz said. "I thought, 'My career is over, and I can look back and say we gave our all.'"

The fact that Tennessee didn't get to the NCAA final in Harper's senior year, let alone win a championship, still sits badly with her. Harper, who this year led Missouri State back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, acknowledges that she even carried the grudge into her coaching career. Thirteen years after the Elite Eight loss that ended her college career, she got a little revenge against the Blue Devils when she was coaching at Greensboro Coliseum while with NC State in 2012.

"We beat Duke in the ACC tournament there," Harper said. "I have to admit, even though it was completely different teams and players and coaches, beating them in Greensboro meant a little more to me personally. I know how insane that sounds, but that's how much I was affected by that loss."