Syracuse, Tennessee women set for improbable regional final
Syracuse forward Taylor Ford interviews head coach Quentin Hillsman, right, in the locker room ahead of a regional final women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 26, 2016, in Sioux Falls, S.D. Syracuse will play Tennessee on Sunday. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) Syracuse has made it to the women's Elite Eight for the first time. Tennessee has reached a regional final for the fifth time in six years after a surprising run that followed – by the Lady Vols' daunting standards – a horrid season.
This improbable matchup Sunday – No. 4 seed Syracuse vs. No. 7 seed Tennessee – will send the winner to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
''Basketball is a tournament sport. That's what we've been teaching,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said Saturday. ''We're in the Elite Eight and we have 13 losses. We split our season up in three seasons. It's the regular season, the SEC, now the NCAA Tournament. Whether you win all your games or lose, when you get into the tournament, it's a clean slate. It's tournament time and anything can happen.''
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Syracuse (28-7) posted its biggest win in program history when it came back from a 13-point deficit to upset No. 1 seed South Carolina 80-72 on Friday. Tennessee (22-13) followed its victory at No. 2 Arizona State a week ago with a 78-62 romp over No. 3 Ohio State.
Whoever wins in Sioux Falls will face the winner of the regional in Lexington, Kentucky, where No. 7 seed Washington beat No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4 Stanford shocked No. 1 Notre Dame.
''They're always preaching parity. I think it's getting a little closer,'' Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. ''You have UConn who is a very good basketball team. South Carolina is a dominant basketball team. So is Notre Dame. You look at those teams, two of those teams losing, it does say a lot about the game and where the game is going.''
Syracuse and Tennessee will play for the second time this season. The Lady Vols won the first-ever meeting 57-55 in Knoxville on Nov. 20 in a game Warlick said she scheduled because she wanted her team to face a 2-3 matchup zone defense.
''We thought we may see it down the road,'' she said, ''so we are.''
The Lady Vols held Syracuse to 32-percent shooting and capitalized on their size advantage, with the 6-foot-2 Bashaara Graves scoring 16 points and the 6-6 Mercedes Russell adding 13.
''I think the experience from that game and playing other big games we played in our league has been big for us,'' Hillsman said. ''Hopefully we can play better in this game.''
Some things to know:
IN THE ZONE: Hillsman was an adherent to full-court, man-to-man pressure defense when he arrived at Syracuse 10 years ago. His first Orange team had injury problems, though, and he wanted to keep his best player out of foul trouble. He took note of the signature zone played by the men's team coached by Jim Boeheim and became a believer.
''When you look out of your window, you see all those banners, and none of them are yours – and all are men's basketball and coach Boeheim – it makes you start to peek downstairs when they're in practice,'' Hillsman said.
Hillsman added, ''He totally converted me.''
NOT SO SHARPSHOOTER: Syracuse's Brianna Butler, the active NCAA career leader in 3-point field goals, was 2 for 13 in the November meeting. It was her second-worst game of the season when attempting at least 10 3s. ''I would just say it was a pretty off-shooting night,'' Butler said. ''With Syracuse, it doesn't really depend on one player. You can have any person come in and step up huge for us.''
INJURY UPDATE: Tennessee starting guard Jordan Reynolds' status was uncertain. She didn't play the second half against Ohio State after taking a shot to the face. Two other players, Graves (hand) and Diamond DeShields (leg), said they were fine. Syracuse reported no injuries.
LOTS OF HISTORY: Tennessee will be playing in its 150th NCAA Tournament game, most of any school, and will be trying to reach the Final Four for the 19th time. The Lady Vols haven't made it that far since 2008, when they won the most recent of their eight championships.
BIGS WILL BE BIG: The game probably will be decided in the post. Syracuse's 6-4 Briana Day and others will have to deal with Russell and Graves, who combined for 39 points and 24 rebounds against Ohio State.
''We're just going to do what we do, follow our game plan, play our scheme, just play hard,'' Day said. ''I mean, it's difficult for them and us because they have good players and we have good players. I don't see much of a difficult thing there.''