Item: Out of nowhere, and football excluded, this has turned out to be a Syracuse University sports year like no other. Entering its eighth month of unparalleled athletic department success with a chance this evening for the Orange women’s hoop team (30-7) to add a third team national championship, as Quentin Hillsman culminates a decade of building the program his way, battling the sport’s giant, three-time defending champion, winners of 74 straight games, No. 1 Connecticut (37-0) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (8:30 p.m. ET / TV: ESPN-Digital: Watch ESPN).
So, wait a moment, is Syracuse turning into the Stanford of the east?
You know, a private school competing against bigger state schools and land-grant universities for national championships on an annual basis.
Sure, we realize in making the comparison that the robustly financially endowed Cardinal happens to offer double the number of men’s/women’s programs (36 to 18) as SU, has won the Director’s Cup honoring the most successful athletic department the last 21 years in a row, and has at least one national championship over the past 40 seasons, accomplishing that feat with a title in men’s soccer last Dec., a Final Four in which Syracuse appeared for the first time in the program’s 83 year history.
So there’s a little catching up to do to with the great legacy of Stanford athletics, but with two national titles and four different Final Four appearances since the academic year got underway swelling the SU athletic department with pride and first-ever milestones, an unfathomable national championship by slaying the mighty Huskies and their star, North Syracuse native Breanna Stewart, would be an all-timer.
Just think of the irony, in Stewart’s final collegiate game after a record-shattering career consisting of three national crowns and three MOP awards at the Final Four (putting her in exclusive company with Lew Alcindor at UCLA from 1967-69), and a 150-5 career record including wins in the last 74 games, the local Big East program (at the time of Stewart’s recruitment for the 2012-13 season) which was still finding its identity under Hillsman, and which never really had a chance to land the Cicero-North Syracuse H.S. star away from Geno Auriemma’s Hall of Fame success, now instead has the long shot opportunity to play spoiler to a picture-perfect collegiate finale for Stewart and the Huskies.
“We understand who we’re playing,” Hillsman said the day before playing UConn. “Geno’s the best coach in the business; Breanna’s the best player in the business. What more exciting a moment than to play against the best.”
Those that follow the sport closely are not giving Syracuse much of a shot at pulling off the shocker, and Stewart herself guaranteed a title game victory in an ESPN interview Sunday after winning in the semifinals against Oregon State, even before knowing Syracuse would be her team’s final opponent.
“We understand the magnitude of the (championship) game, and we embrace it,” Hillsman reiterated. “I know this may sound silly to some of you guys (the assembled media) but we talk about this with our team. We talk about winning national championships; we talk about being in this (title) game.”
No matter how Syracuse finishes its landmark season, Hillsman and his team have more than made their impact continuing one of the most successful overall athletic department year’s in modern school history.