Originally Published: April 5, 2016 10:32 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — Coach Quentin Hillsman made defense the cornerstone of Syracuse's rebuilding project.
In the biggest game in school history, that defense cracked under the pressure of UConn's offensive onslaught.
The last team with a chance to stop the Huskies' historic march couldn't slow them down Tuesday night. UConn scored the first nine points, needed less than six minutes to take a double-digit lead and spent most of the rest of the game pulling away for an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship with an 82-51 victory in Indianapolis.
"I don't think it was nerves at all. We were just rushing some shots and we weren't really getting our defense settled," guard Brittney Sykes said. "Once we got the flow of the game at our pace, we started to get those stops and those baskets."
There was one brief glimpse of what that defense looked like for most of this season. But all the 16-0 third-quarter run was cut a 33-point deficit to a more manageable score of 60-43. The Huskies responded and that was that.
It was an unceremonious end to Syracuse's best season.
The Orange set a school record for victories and reached the Sweet 16. There, they stunned top-seeded South Carolina in the regional semifinals and blew out perennial power Tennessee to reach the Final Four. They routed Washington in Indianapolis to earn a trip to the title game. Then they were overwhelmed by the perfect team.
UConn has won 75 in a row and produced an astounding average victory margin of 39.8 points in this year's six tourney games.
This time, the Huskies (38-0) made it look easy by methodically dissecting Syracuse's trademark full-court pressure and vaunted zone.
They easily negotiated Syracuse's usually tough pressure and had no trouble getting into its half-court sets. If someone wasn't shooting over the top of the zone, UConn simply fed the ball inside for baskets. The result: UConn made five 3-pointers in the first half when it built a 27-point halftime lead and had a 36-22 scoring advantage in the paint.
Syracuse had other problems, too.
While Cornelia Fondren scored 16 points and Sykes added 12, Syracuse was only 9 of 30 from the field in the first half and finished the game shooting 35.5 percent. Plus, their strong 3-point shooting went 2 of 19.
"We didn't score. So when you don't make shots, you can't get your pressure going," HIllsman said. "We were pressing more in unsettled situations. That's the key to our pressure is getting the ball in the basket."
Sykes was the only Syracuse player named to the all-tournament team. The team's top scorer in the tournament, Alexis Peterson, injured her right shoulder when she tried to wrestle the ball away from Kia Nurse with 4:54 left in the game. Before walking to bench, Peterson let out a scream the whole arena heard.
Breanna Stewart, the Syracuse prep star who got away, finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists en route to a record-breaking fourth straight Most Outstanding Player Award.
Still, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was impressed with Syracuse's effort and how it could bode for the future.
"I don't think anybody was picking Syracuse to play in the national championship game," he said. "For them to do what they did on this stage was pretty remarkable."
But on the sport's biggest stage, the defense that had been so reliable for so much of the season finally broke down, forcing Syracuse to spend all night playing catch-up.
"They know how to score the basketball, and they're just an efficient team," Sykes said. "It takes years to get to that level. There's a lot of great teams out there, but they're special."