INDIANAPOLIS — Sure, Connecticut may be the heavy favorite to walk away with a fourth straight women’s basketball national championship on Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But first, the 36-0 Huskies will have to contend with an Oregon State team that hasn’t backed down from anyone this season.
The Beavers (32-4) and Huskies meet at 3 p.m. Sunday in the first of two national semifinals. Washington and Syracuse face off at 5:30 p.m.
The national title game is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
While the Beavers are the heavy underdogs, they bring a confidence and strong bond into the game.
“We have that unity and we’re going to go fight for each other,” senior Jamie Weisner said Saturday afternoon. “I think we’re hitting on all cylinders. Our defense is as good as it’s ever been. Obviously making it to the first Final Four in school history gives us enough confidence in itself. I think our confidence is very high and we’re going into this fearless.”
For all the success the Huskies have had — they are going for an 11th title overall and fourth straight — that has nothing to do with Sunday’s game, Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said.
“We’re playing this game and it’s not about the past,” Rueck said. “We can’t control that. We can give them all the credit in the world for it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s these 40 minutes. And that’s all that matters.”
That was the case last week when the Beavers handed Baylor — owners of two national titles under coach Kim Mulkey — a loss in what amounted to a home game in the Dallas regional final to earn the program’s first trip to the Final Four.
“Playing Baylor last week was very similar,” Rueck said. “We could look at the history there and look at this team that is just physically, I mean, imposing. You go into it say, OK, this is a team we’ve got to beat tonight and this is the environment. And we’ve got to drown out the crowd and we’ve got to just play basketball. And our team did that.
“And they played, in my opinion, they played fearlessly in that game once we got used to playing against that team. Just like every team. So I don’t think we can even think of that stuff. I certainly don’t. It’s just like who cares. That stuff doesn’t matter. So you’ve got to let that stuff go and you’ve got to be mature and disciplined enough mentally to not focus on anything that doesn’t matter to this possession right now.”
What the Beavers have relied on all season is a defense that led the country in field-goal percentage defense at 31.5 percent.
OSU held Baylor more than 20 points below its season average in the Dallas Regional final on Monday.
Jamie Weisner said the key to that success has been to make opponents take shots and do things they don’t want to.
“It’s everybody against the ball,” she said. “We try to keep everything in front and we don’t gamble for much. We try to limit layups, obviously a high-percentage shot, and we’ll make people shoot what they don’t want to shoot.
“So say No. 5, whoever she is, she likes to go left every time so we’re going to force her right. Maybe she’ll get an open shot but it’s a shot she doesn’t want. Just forcing people into something they don’t want to do.”
Still, while the defense has been exceptional, the Beavers are confident and they aren’t focused on the past, the Huskies still present a huge challenge.
“Well, they’re the best team in the country,” Sydney Wiese said. “We’ve watched a lot of games this season just for fun to watch them play. …
“They do such a good job of passing and making the extra pass. It’s like they know where each other is going to be at each moment. They’re always a step ahead. So for us to counter that it’s also being a step ahead and a step ahead of their step ahead. We have to make sure we’re always on our toes and that we have to box out.”
Regardless of the outcome, the Beavers know they will have plenty of memories.
“I don’t know how the game’s going to turn out when the scoreboard says the final score, but to be out there, competing against some of the best players we’re going to face, together with this group, I think it’s going to be an awesome experience we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives,” Wiese said.
“As a kid you dream of these moments to be Final four. You’ve just got to soak it all up, take a deep breath and smile while you’re out there.”