Connecticut’s road to perfection and history makes a final stop in Indianapolis for the NCAA Women’s Final Four.
The Huskies are only two wins away from yet another national championship, which would be the 11th in program history, and a special place in history books, as well as individual milestones for coach Geno Auriemma and star players Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. The Huskies have won 22 straight NCAA Tournament games, passing longtime rival Tennessee for the longest streak.
Joining Connecticut are three programs making their first appearances in the Final Four: Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington. Oregon State, the No. 2 seed from the Dallas Region, will play Connecticut in Sunday night’s first semifinal at 6 p.m., with the game airing on ESPN. Syracuse, the No. 4 seed from the Sioux Falls Region, and Washington, the No. 7 seed from the Lexington Region, will play the second semifinal at 8:30 p.m., with that game switching over to ESPN2.
Connecticut, the top seed from the Bridgeport Region, will be making its ninth straight appearance in the Final Four.
Chasing history: With two wins, Connecticut (36-0) would become the first women’s college basketball team to win four straight national titles. Before her career at Connecticut got started, Stewart set a goal of winning four national titles, a feat never done by any collegiate women’s or men’s player. Stewart, a first-team All-American forward, is in position to do it. Jefferson, the fabulous senior first-team All-America point guard, and Tuck, a 6-2 senior forward and second-team All-American, would join Stewart as four-time national title winners. Auriemma could claim his 11th national title as a coach, passing the legendary John Wooden of UCLA for most in college basketball history. Connecticut also is seeking its sixth unbeaten season. The Huskies enter the Final Four with a 73-game winning streak, the second longest in team and Division I women’s history.
Re-writing history? Is Connecticut’s dominance ruining the women’s game? The criticism started after Connecticut’s 60-point win over Mississippi State in the Sweet 16 and the questions likely will continue in Indianapolis. One way to put the questions to rest is for a team to beat the Huskies. Oregon State (32-4) will get the first shot in the semifinals. Oregon State isn’t as much of a surprise to be in Indianapolis as Syracuse and Washington. The Pac-12 champions have been a top-10-caliber team all season and have won 22 of their last 23 games, including a huge 60-57 win over top-seeded Baylor in the Elite Eight. The Beavers are one of the best defensive teams in the country (No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense). Oregon State has the fabulous trio of senior guard Jamie Weisner (17.5 points per game), junior point guard Sydney Wiese (12.8 points, 5.7 rebounds 5.1 assists), a matchup nightmare at 6-1, and 6-6 senior center Ruth Hamblin (11.8 points, 10 rebounds,, and 124 total blocks).
Party crashers: Syracuse (29-7) and Washington (26-10) weren’t expected to be in Indianapolis playing for a spot in the national championship game. After beating Army and Albany in the first two rounds of the tournament, the Orange upset South Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Sioux Falls Regional, 80-72, in the Sweet 16 and knocked out Tennessee, 89-67, in the Elite Eight. Washington, which finished fifth in the Pac-12 during the regular season, had a string of huge wins in the Lexington Regional, upsetting No. 2 seed Maryland, 74-65, on the Terps’ home court, beating No. 3 seed Kentucky, 85-72, in the Sweet 16 on the Wildcats’ home court and then finishing off No. 4 seed and Pac-12 rival Stanford, 85-76. in the Elite Eight.
Alexis Peterson, Syracuse: Peterson, a 5-7 junior guard, is Syracuse’s leading scorer (16.1 points per game) and leader in assists (4.7 per game). Peterson, however, has elevated her game during Syracuse’s magical run to Indianapolis. She scored 24 points in the win over Army, then had 22 points and six assists in the victory over Albany. She followed with 26 points and three assists in the upset over South Carolina and saved her best for the Elite Eight, scoring 29 points with six assists in the win over Tennessee. Peterson will need another big scoring game against Washington.
Kelsey Plum, Washington: Plum, a junior point guard, is one of the most dynamic players in the nation. She is third in the nation in scoring (26.2 points) among Division I players and a third-team All-American selection. She has had a great tournament thus far, scoring 24 points with seven assists against Pennsylvania; 32 points, seven assists and six rebounds against Maryland; 23 points, seven assists and six rebounds against Kentucky, and 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds against Stanford. Plum is a great decision-maker, great leader and makes the Washington engine go.
Breanna Stewart, Connecticut: Stewart, the best player in the country, is not only trying to win her fourth straight national title, but also her fourth straight Most Outstanding Player award for the Final Four, a feat no other player — man or woman — has ever accomplished. Stewart a senior forward, is averaging 19.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. She is a highly skilled offensive player, but it’s her defense that can impact a game. At 6-4 and with a 7-1 wingspan, Stewart is a defensive force. She blocked three straight shots during one possession against Duquesne in the second round of the tournament.
Jamie Weisner, Oregon State: The sharpshooting Weisner is Oregon State’s leading scorer (614 points) and hits 45 percent of her three-point shots (76-169 this season). She has led Oregon State in scoring 18 times this season. Weisner, a second-team All-American selection, is a gritty competitor and the Beavers’ emotional leader. Weisner erupted for career highs of 38 points and seven three-pointers in an 83-71 win over DePaul in the Sweet 16. Weisner is averaging 19.8 points in the tournament and will need to have a big scoring night if Oregon State hopes to upset Connecticut.
Briana and Bria Day, Syracuse: Syracuse has plenty of perimeter players to worry about in Washington’s Plum and senior forward Talia Walton. But the Huskies’ Chantel Osahor, a 6-2 junior forward, has had two straight huge games scoring and rebounding. Kentucky and Stanford found out how devastating Osahor can be. The Day twins — both 6-4 junior centers — will need to keep Osahor from having another big game. Briana Day has started all 36 games and is averaging 10 points and 7.9 rebounds with 75 blocks. Bria Day has played in 35 games — all off the bench — and is second on the team with 36 blocks.
Gabriella Hanson, Oregon State: Oregon State will need big games from Weisner, Wiese and Hamblin to upset Connecticut — and even that may not be enough. Oregon State will need to keep up with Connecticut’s offensive output and Hanson could be an important player. Hanson, a 5-11 junior guard, is averaging 7.9 points and has made 35 three-pointers this season (although her percentage is only 26 percent). Hanson has started all 36 games this season and has led Oregon State in scoring four times. She can be a key contributor on the offensive end against Connecticut. Hanson is also arguably Oregon State’s top defensive player.
Chantel Osahor, Washington: Osahor totaled 15 points and 25 rebounds in the first two games of the tournament, but exploded for 19 points and 17 rebounds against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and 24 points and 18 rebounds against Stanford in the Elite Eight. Osahor, a standstill three-point shooter, hit 4-of-8 three-pointers against Kentucky and 3 of 5 against Stanford. With Washington going only six or seven players deep and very reliant on scoring from Plum and Walton, Osahor needs to continue putting up big numbers.
Katie Lou Samuelson, Connecticut: Connecticut relies heavily on Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck. But when Samuelson is locked in and hitting shots, the Huskies shift to another gear. Samuelson, a 6-3 freshman guard who was the No. 1 recruit in the country, got off to a rough start in her Connecticut career as a bench player. Samuelson, however, is a starter now and has played well the past month, improving as a defender, rebounder and passer. Since Feb. 20, Samuelson has led Connecticut in scoring six times. She is averaging 11.1 points and has made 77 three-pointers this season (39 percent).