By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — As soon as the final buzzer went off last week at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Kelly Faris was looking forward to helping the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team get into position to play Notre Dame yet one more time.
The opportunity has arrived.
The second-seeded Huskies reached their ninth straight Big East tournament final Monday by holding off No. 3 Syracuse 64-51 at the XL Center. Standing in the way of a sixth straight title for UConn (29-3) is, of course, Notre Dame. Kayla McBride scored 17 points as the top-seeded Irish advanced with an 83-59 win over No. 4 Louisville. Notre Dame (30-1) will take a 25-game winning streak into the final.
“I want it as bad as anyone could possibly want it,” Faris said. “To lose to the same team however many times … This is my last Big East tournament and I want to go out with a good taste in my mouth.”
UConn is seeking its 19th tournament title as it is making its 23rd appearance in the championship game in the last 25 years. The Irish are making their third straight trip to the final and seventh overall. Notre Dame is 0-6 in finals with all the losses to UConn.
But the Irish have won six of the last seven against UConn and have won the last three after trailing with less than a minute to go, including last week’s 96-87 triple-overtime victory in South Bend.
“I wouldn’t care if it was Louisville or Duke we were losing to,” Faris said. “If you lose to a team that many times, it will get under your skin and frustrate you.
“This is our last chance. This is it. For the seniors, it’s the last chance to win a Big East championship and you leave it all out on the floor. We have to trust each other and play the way we know how to play.”
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart had 14 points each Monday as UConn denied Syracuse (24-7) its first championship game appearance since 1988.
The Huskies spotted the Orange the game’s first basket but did not trail the rest of the way. Runs of 6-0 and 7-0 helped them take a 24-15 lead. Stefanie Dolson capped an 8-0 run that helped UConn to a 39-24 halftime lead.
Dolson gave UConn its biggest lead at 46-27 before Syracuse made things interesting. Brianna Butler’s breakaway layup pulled the Orange to within 49-40 with 11:33 left. But the Huskies withstood the run with the help of a pair of Mosqueda-Lewis 3-pointers that pushed the lead back to 61-47. Faris’ bank shot with 1:13 left iced it.
“That was a crazy game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We did a lot of really, really good things in the first half and we got a lot of contributions from various people. We got ourselves in a pretty good situation. It was a great combination of stuff.
“Then I thought I would go in at halftime and try to ruin it and I did.”
Dolson chipped in 13 points and nine rebounds, while Bria Hartley — like Stewart — had her second straight good effort with 11 points and seven assists. Faris, playing a second straight day with the sprained ligament in her left foot, went 36 minutes and had seven points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and three steals, but also six turnovers.
UConn out-rebounded Syracuse 38-23 and shot 46 percent from the floor.
“I think we’re playing more aggressive,” Hartley said. “We have multiple playmakers on our team and that makes it hard for teams to defend.”
Syracuse senior center Kayla Alexander led the Orange with 14 points. She became the first Orange player to reach the 2,000-point plateau by making a free throw with 1:40 left.
“When I first got here my freshman year my goal was to get playing time and contribute in any way possible to the team,” Alexander said. “The fact that I hit 2,000, that’s mind blowing and I’m trying to wrap my head around it. It goes back to the amazing coach I have and the amazing coaching staff and my teammates that are always looking for me.”
Syracuse will now await a probable NCAA tournament at-large bid.
For UConn and Notre Dame, it will be their 14th meeting in the last four seasons.
“UConn-Notre Dame is going to be an awesome game,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said.
Here we go again.