Friday, December 15, 2017
Sports

Women's Final Four: Three newcomers challenge mighty UConn

Breanna Stewart said when she was a freshman that her goal at UConn was to win four national championships.

The Huskies' star senior stands two victories away from backing up that statement as the Huskies are back in the Final Four for a ninth straight season.

That's no surprise the way they've run through the season, winning all 36 of their games by double digits — including three victories over USF that included one for the American Athletic Conference title. Two more wins will give UConn an unprecedented feat with a fourth consecutive title.

"We're really excited to go to the Final Four," said Stewart, who was selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the Bridgeport Regional.

"I think that any time you go, it's a lot of fun, there's a lot going on. ... This is our last trip with this team. Last time to be with this team. And I think we're just going to enjoy it. Especially as seniors. Last time it's going to be like this."

While it seems that making the national semifinals is an annual rite of spring for UConn, the other teams heading to Indianapolis are doing so for the first time. Oregon State, Washington and Syracuse are all making their debuts.

It's the first time since 1994 that three women's teams will make their first Final Four appearance in the same season. That was the year before UConn won its first of 10 national championships. So much for there being no parity in women's basketball.

"Maybe it's taken awhile, but there are a lot of good players out there and there's a lot of really good coaches out there, and I'm glad that everybody in the country got to see two teams that maybe you don't get to see much at all," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

"So I'm thrilled for them."

Oregon State, which will face UConn on Sunday night, isn't a major surprise after winning the Pac-12 and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs. Still Oregon State hadn't won more than one game in the NCAA Tournament before this season. Coach Scott Rueck has rebuilt the program.

"I'm just the happiest, proudest coach that you could possibly imagine right now and I could go on forever about this group," Rueck said after his team knocked off No. 1 seed Baylor 60-57 Monday night behind Sydney Wiese's 18 points, which included three free throws in the final 34 seconds.

"So this is a great, great day, and I think that this day signifies just anything is possible," Rueck said. "People who know our story and have been following this group, there is no other words to describe it.

"It's a great sports story. It has nothing to do with women's basketball. It has to do with sports and the human spirit and that might be kinda deep, but that's what this is, a group that believed when there was no reason to, to see themselves through a Final Four, it's mind-blowing."

Syracuse and Washington shocked nearly everyone, pulling off major upsets to advance. The Huskies became the first No. 7 seed to go this far since Minnesota pulled it off in 2004.

Not bad for the fifth-place team in the Pac-12.

"We're not done yet," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "'What's Next?' has been our motto. It's going to continue to be all the way through Indy."

The Orange had never made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Now the No. 4 seed in the Sioux Falls Regional is two victories away from a title.

It was a good weekend for Syracuse as the men's team also advanced to the Final Four, marking the 12th time a school has two teams playing the final weekend of the season.

Both Syracuse programs share the same facility — the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.

"It's really good. It says a lot about our building," said Quentin Hillsman, who is in his 10th year as coach of the Syracuse women. "We have two very good basketball teams in that building. Both teams are right in their mode."

     
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