Syracuse women aiming to take down No. 1 UConn
It's been two years since the Syracuse women made the national rankings for the first time in school history, and that breakthrough came after giving powerful Connecticut one of its toughest games that season.
Now, the Orange (19-7, 6-7 Big East) have a chance for an encore performance when the top-ranked Huskies (27-0, 13-0) visit on Wednesday night riding a 66-game winning streak and oh-so-close to making history again.
Connecticut is within three wins of its sixth undefeated regular season and four shy of tying its own NCAA record for consecutive victories at 70. And if the Huskies beat the Orange, they'll clinch a share of the conference title.
``I relish the opportunity to play the best and beat the best,'' Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said Tuesday morning before practice. ``All you can do is ask to be on the court.''
``They're the No. 1 team in the country. We've just got to play hard and compete with them,'' added senior Nicole Michael, Syracuse's all-time leader in points, rebounds, field-goal attempts, free throws attempted and made and games started. ``They're just a great team overall, and they all play together, but I feel we're a good team, also.''
Syracuse's record matches its second-best mark after 26 games in its 39-year history. A month ago, the Orange were on the fringe of making the AP Top 25 again after starting the season with 12 straight victories.
But Syracuse's penchant for turnovers - the Orange are averaging 19 a game and committed a whopping 33 in losing their first game of the season, to rival Georgetown - has spoiled too many spirited efforts. The Orange outrebounded then-No. 2 Notre Dame 49-34 three weeks ago but were undone by 25 turnovers and 14 missed free throws.
``They really are talented,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. ``They have so many different people they can run in and out. They've got a really good team.''
Certainly better than the 1995-96 team of former coach Marianna Freeman. The Orange finished that season at 14-14, but they were good enough to shock a second-ranked Connecticut team led by Nykesha Sales and Jennifer Rizzotti. Syracuse beat the Huskies 62-59 at Manley Field House on Jan. 2, 1996, snapping the Huskies' 40-game conference winning streak. It was Syracuse's first win ever over a ranked opponent.
Of Syracuse's conference losses this season, three were at home by a combined six points to rivals currently ranked: Ashley Barlow's 3-pointer in the final minute gave No. 7 Notre Dame a 74-73 victory; the two-point overtime loss to the Hoyas, now ranked No. 13; and a 68-65 loss to St. John's, which is ranked 18th this week.
``Who would ever have thought you'd have 33 turnovers and be in overtime with anybody? We kind of felt good about it after the (Georgetown) game was over,'' Hillsman said. ``We knew where we needed to improve.''
The Orange finally have a breakthrough of sorts to boost their confidence entering the most important game of the season.
After losing 83-69 at Villanova - the Wildcats' first Big East win of the season after nine straight losses - and dropping a 66-62 overtime decision at home to Cincinnati, Syracuse rebounded on Sunday with a 76-45 win over Rutgers. In the first victory in school history at Rutgers, the Orange committed had just 15 giveaways and had 13 steals in forcing 25 turnovers by the Scarlet Knights.
There's certainly no love lost between Connecticut and Syracuse. That upset 14 years ago is a distant memory, but last season's game surely is not. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma had words with Michael in the handshake line after UConn's 107-53 victory a year ago in Hartford.
Auriemma was pulled away from Michael by assistant coach Shea Ralph, and when he went back through the line to leave the court, Michael appeared to step in his direction, and he tripped over her foot. Auriemma was then led away by his players.
Auriemma also received a technical foul with just over 6 minutes left and his team up 56 points for screaming about Syracuse's physical play.
Afterward, Hillsman was critical of Auriemma for keeping Connecticut's starters on the floor for so long in a game in which the Huskies tied a Big East record with 18 3-pointers, including a team-record 10 by Maya Moore.
Hillsman says that game is in the past. That's probably coach speak at best.
``You don't ever want to get beat by that many points, I don't care what level you're playing at,'' Syracuse junior guard Erica Morrow said. ``I'm sure everyone has some lingering feelings, but we don't want our emotions to get the best of us. You can't be emotional in this game. It'll get the best of you.''