COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Syracuse hung tough to get the NCAA Tournament win it needed to get the rematch the Orange have wanted since November.
Brianna Butler scored 17 points, including the go-ahead basket with 58.7 seconds left, to lift eighth-seeded Syracuse to a 72-69 victory over Nebraska on Friday night.
Now, Syracuse tries to reach its first-ever Sweet 16 on Sunday against top-seeded South Carolina, a team they lost to 67-63 at the Junkanoo Jam last November.
”That was a tough game,” Syracuse guard Alexis Peterson said. ”We were the better team for 38 minutes and we had mental lapses in the last two minutes.”
There were no lapses down the stretch for Syracuse (22-9). After Butler’s basket, she stole the ball to end one Nebraska possession and Peterson made four foul shots to seal the victory.
”We need this rematch,” Syracuse’s Cornelia Fondren said.
The Gamecocks defeated Savannah State 81-48 to advance.
Emily Cady led Nebraska with 18 points.
Neither team could break free of the other in the second half until Syracuse moved in front 62-57 on Butler’s jumper with 4:49 left. Nebraska tied it up one last time, at 66-all, on Cady’s 3-pointer with 1:24 to go. That’s when Butler got free inside for the go-ahead shot and the Orange held on to win their NCAA Tournament opener for the second straight season.
Nebraska had a final chance to tie, but Cady missed the second of two foul shots and the Huskers could not recover.
”When it left my hand, I thought it was going in,” Cady said. ”Sometimes, you miss.”
Fondren added 18 points for Syracuse.
Natalie Romeo had 15 points and Hailie Sample added 14 for Nebraska, which had advanced past the NCAA’s opening game in three of its previous four trips.
Syracuse and Nebraska were a couple of tournament teams uncertain if they’d make the field a month or so ago. The Orange had lost three of five games in the midst of Atlantic Coast Conference play, but turned things around by winning four of their final five to come to South Carolina as an eighth-seed.
Nebraska opened the season 17-4, then lost leading scorer Rachel Theriot to an ankle injury. The Huskers went 4-5 down the stretch, yet still got the call for their fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
And like you might expect from an eight-nine matchup, it was tight in the opening half.
Syracuse build a 33-28 lead on Fondren’s layup with 3:22 left. Nebraska, though, rallied to tie things at 33-all on Sample’s jumper and Romeo’s 3-pointer.
Peterson hit a 3-pointer to put Syracuse out front and again, Nebraska tied it 36-all with a foul shot and basket from Brandi Jeffrey.
Syracuse’s Alexis Peterson went 4-for-4 on foul shots in the final minute and said all she thought about was the team’s free-throw drill earlier in the week when any miss meant the players would run. ”I didn’t want to make anybody run,” Peterson said with a smile.
Nebraska coach Connie Yori said having regular point guard Brandi Jeffrey out of the game at the end after fouling out did not help her team’s ball-handling in crunch time. Yori said her young reserve Chandler Smith is not as accustomed to late game situations. ”We’d like to have gotten a shot off on that possession, that’s for sure,” she said.
Nebraska: Cady tied a Nebraska record with her 132nd career start. The senior matched the mark Lindsey Moore, who had 132 straight starts from 2010-13.
Syracuse: This is the Orange’s third straight NCAA Tournament trip, a first in program history … The Orange average nearly 15 turnovers a game. They had just eight against Nebraska.
Nebraska’s season is over
Syracuse will take on top-seed South Carolina on Sunday.