Sioux Falls SD -- The main theme of the 2016 NCAA women's tournament thus far seems to be "upsets." Something more commonly found in the men's tournament, the women's game is starting to see the underdog come through. That's just what we saw yesterday in the Sioux Falls Regional, setting the stage for an exciting regional final between two "supposed" underdogs Syracuse and Tennessee.
No. 4 seed Syracuse, who was down by as much as 13 points during the game, made the comeback of the century and rallied back to beat Dawn Staley's No. 1 seed Gamecocks, 80-72.
"I thought yesterday our kids fought really hard to get back into that game," said Orange Head Coach, Quentin Hillsman, in his opening statement at this morning's press conference. "We had a specific game plan, and they followed it down to the second left on the clock.
"I was very happy for our focus, for the trust in our system, and for us just doing everything we had to do to win the basketball game."
In the later game, Holly Warlick's No. 4 seed the Lady Vols stomped No. 3 Ohio State 78-62 to make it to their fifth Elite Eight in the past six seasons. Though success has been no stranger to the Tennessee women's basketball program, they're the only team in NCAA history to appear in all 35 NCAA tournaments their regular season performance didn't exactly predict an Elite Eight appearance.
The Lady Vols went 8-8 in conference, and were just 17-13 in regular season play. Guard/Forward, Jamie Nared, said the turning point came in their last game of the regular season, an 80-60 win over Georgia.
"We all just finally said, ‘We're tired of losing,' tired of how we've been playing. Ever since, we just kind of picked it up a notch. We played to the way we're capable of playing. I think it's shown."
Though these two teams are familiar with the "underdog" field this postseason, their history couldn't be more opposite.
This will be Tennessee's 150th tournament game, and there are only three teams in the NCAA who've played in over 100 tournament games (UConn with 124, Stanford at 108).
However, Tennessee has the most tournament wins of any school with 123, and as mentioned earlier, they're the only school to appear in every NCAA tournament to date. Finally, the Lady Vols are 18-9 in Elite Eight games.
And Syracuse? This is their first Elite Eight appearance in school history. This is a special team that has known their capabilities all season and is glad to show the world what they can do.
"It feels really good, just to see that we've worked hard all season, and to see it finally all come true. We're still making history, so it's a great feeling," cited ‘Cuse forward, Bria Day.
Now, the match-up. This is only the second meeting in history between these two schools -- the first coming in each team's second game of this season. Tennessee edged ‘Cuse 57-55 in Knoxville back on November 20th. Though it's tough to remember back that far, Orange guard, Brittany Sykes, put the previous meeting in perspective.
"It was our second game of the season. Some can say that we were still a little rusty. We were trying to find our groove of things. So was Tennessee. However, as the games have gone on throughout the season, you kind of find your flow. I think we did that throughout our season after that loss."
"I just think, remembering from that game, we just have to do what we do: pressure teams, make shots, turn them over, play our game, honestly."
"Pressure" isn't exactly a word that comes to mind when most people think of a zone defense, but Syracuse's match-up zone is a force to be reckoned with.
"I think they have length in their post position. The way they're able to get to their spots, I think they have a very good understanding of what they're trying to do with that zone ... They don't seem to get confused too much because they're very comfortable running it," Tennessee's Diamond DeShields noted about the Orange's defense.
"They just have athletes all over the floor. It's not a slow zone. It's very quick, in and out."
Warlick added in some keys to their opponent's success, as well, discussing the variety of ways the Orange can attack.
"I think they do a lot of things very well. They attack. They're well-coached. They beat a really, really, solid, good basketball team last night in South Carolina. If somebody doesn't take them seriously, there's something wrong with them, and we take them very seriously."
At the same time, the Lady Vols have weapons at the ready for the Orange. They seem to like the rims here in Sioux Falls -- shooting 50% from the field as a team in last night's win and making some very impressive plays.
"I think it's just about everybody playing their part. Like a puzzle, everyone just knowing what they're capable of at this time in the NCAA tournament, which we need. That's important, everybody just playing their part and it all coming together," said Lady Vols' Center, Nia Moore.
When it all comes down to it, records and school history are thrown out the window in the postseason. These are two incredibly talented teams that can barely even be considered "underdogs," and tomorrow at 3:30 p.m., we'll have an outright battle in Sioux Falls for a ticket to Indy.