SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — 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 a horrid season by the Lady Vols' daunting standards.
This improbable matchup today — 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."
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, Ky., 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 meet 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."
Syracuse's Brianna Butler, the active NCAA career leader in 3-point field goals, was 2-for-13 in the November meeting.
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.
"He totally converted me."
Lady Vols starting guard Jordan Reynolds' status was uncertain as of Saturday afternoon. 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.
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.