UConn meets up with old friend Syracuse on Monday night

Syracuse's Alexis Peterson brings the ball up on the fast break against Iowa State in first round of NCAA women's college basketball tournament action Saturday, March 18, 2017 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Syracuse won 85-65 to advance to Monday's second-round game with UConn. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Storrs — Quentin Hillsman, the Syracuse University women's basketball coach, isn't sure how his team got to be a No. 8 seed, meaning the Orange will oppose the nation's favorite to win the national championship, UConn, in just the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“I don't know,” Hillsman said Sunday from Gampel Pavilion. “I try to do my best not to get involved in it. There was a day when we were sitting there crossing our fingers to get in and we didn't get in. I can't be getting in and crying about my seed.”

And so the rematch of last year's national championship game, UConn vs. Syracuse, will come in the second round of the tournament beginning at 6:30 Monday night at Gampel (ESPN2).

It's the first time a matchup between finalists has ever happened the next season prior to the Final Four. And the questions and answers during Sunday's news conferences involving the coaches and players made it seem a little Final Four-like, in fact.

UConn defeated Syracuse in last year's final in Indianapolis 82-51.

On Sunday, UConn coach Geno Auriemma bristled when the Syracuse guard tandem of Alexis Peterson (23.3 points per game) and Brittney Sykes (19.3 ppg) was referred to several times as “the best backcourt in the country.” The Orange duo, is in fact the nation's top scoring backcourt.

“For not having the best backcourt in the country, we've had a pretty good year,” Auriemma deadpanned.

Hillsman later answered: “Look at their numbers; they have good numbers. I think people want you to devalue yourself and your program. You're supposed to feel like you can win every game. I feel like we have the best backcourt in the country.”

Also, Auriemma was asked about losing the regional rivalry with Syracuse after the breakup of the Big East Conference. UConn asked Syracuse last year for a homecoming game for national player of the year Breanna Stewart, but Syracuse declined.

“I think if any coach had their druthers, they'd want to play teams that are familiar to the fans in the area, teams that there's a history,” Auriemma said. “We try to create new rivalries, but that takes a long time. … It doesn't bother me. People say no all the time. What are you going to do? Make them play you? We don't ask twice. We ask once.”

“Last year, I just said no,” Hillsman rebutted. “We didn't need the game. We were full.”

And now for the game.

UConn (33-0) had three players from last year's team which met Syracuse, Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, go as the top three players in the WNBA Draft. Those three combined for 56 points against the Orange. Of this year's UConn starters, senior guard Saniya Chong played just three minutes in that game and Katie Lou Samuelson did not play due to a broken foot.

Syracuse (22-10), meanwhile, returns four starters, including Peterson and Sykes. Sykes scored 28 points in the Orange's 85-65 first-round win Saturday over No. 9 Iowa State and Peterson had 25. Freshman guard Gabby Cooper added 24, with a school record eight 3-pointers.

Syracuse made 15 3-pointers against Iowa State, taking 29. The Orange have attempted 949 3s this season to 582 for their opponents.

Syracuse is ranked 21st in the nation and defeated four ranked teams during the season, including then-No. 14 Miami, and lost by only five to No. 7 Notre Dame (85-80) on Feb. 19. The sixth-seeded Orange won their first game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament over No. 14 North Carolina before falling to No. 3 Duke in the quarterfinals 68-46.

“I think we're a pretty good 3-point shooting team and we've shot 670 3-pointers,” Auriemma said. “They've shot like 900-something. It's a challenge. What are you going to do to offset that?”

Auriemma said no one could have envisioned how much UConn's players have evolved this year, carrying over the unbeaten streak game after game.

“How much they've changed, how much they've grown,” Auriemma said of the difference between UConn-Syracuse 2016 and UConn-Syracuse 2017. “Our guys had to learn on the job this year. They learned a lot from that experience of being on the court with those players last year.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

NCAA second round

No. 1 UConn vs. No. 8 Syracuse

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs.

Tip: 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2).

Records: Syracuse 22-10 overall; UConn 33-0.

Last game: Syracuse beat No. 9 Iowa State 85-65 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday; UConn beat No. 16 Albany 116-55 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday.

Probable starters: Syracuse, 5-7 Sr. G Alexis Peterson (23.3 ppg, 7.1 apg, 3.0 spg), 5-10 Fr. G Gabby Cooper (9.3 ppg), 5-9 R-Sr. G Brittney Sykes (19.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.4 apg), 6-0 Sr. F Isabella Slim (4.7 ppg), 6-4 Sr. C Briana Day (12.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg).

UConn, 5-8 Sr. G Saniya Chong (8.1 ppg), 6-0 Jr. G Kia Nurse (12.6 ppg), 6-3 So. G/F Katie Lou Samuelson (20.8 ppg), 5-11 Jr. F Gabby Williams (13.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.8 spg), 6-1 So. G/F Napheesa Collier (20.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg).

Noteworthy: The winner of this game, a rematch of last year's national championship game won by UConn, will make it to the Bridgeport Regional, with play beginning Saturday at Webster Bank Arena. UConn has been to 23 straight Sweet 16s, with a potential win against Syracuse making it 24. The last time the Huskies failed to make at least the regional semifinals was 1993; UConn lost that year to Louisville (74-71) at Gampel Pavilion. The second-longest streak of nine belongs to Stanford. … Said UConn guard Kia Nurse of the return engagement with Syracuse: “You can obviously look at last year's game and see the strengths and weaknesses there, but every single year is a different year for every team. I think that your strengths become different, your personnel is different. … I think we still have the same type of expectations held for ourselves.” … UConn is 38-12 all-time against Syracuse and has won 24 straight. … UConn averages 87.5 points per game, Syracuse 79.2. Syracuse shoots an average of 29.7 3-pointers per game. … Syracuse guard Alexis Peterson set a program record with 45 points on Jan. 12 against N.C. State. She is second in school history with 1,953 career points and first with 586 career assists. … Syracuse assistant coach Tammi Reiss played against UConn in the Huskies' first-ever Final Four in 1991. … Desiree Elmore, who played for Hartford Capital in last year's Class L state championship game against New London High School, is a freshman for Syracuse, averaging 2.4 points in 9.3 minutes per game. Elmore had what coach Quentin Hillsman called some “rough spots this year,” including a concussion which caused her to miss several games. Said Hillsman of Elmore, the 5-foot-9 guard: “She was our top recruit coming in. The future's really, really bright for her.” Elmore was a UConn fan prior to signing with the Orange. “Growing up, I was always a Maya Moore fan,” Elmore said. “I liked how she carried herself on the court and off the court. She reminded me of a female LeBron. She's always been my favorite.”

— Vickie Fulkerson

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