SYRACUSE, N.Y. >> Quit worrying, Syracuse Orange guard Brittney Sykes said. Her twice-surgically repaired right knee is fine.
On Sunday, Sykes overcame any worries of how her past two seasons ended on the sideline to help the fourth-seeded Orange advance to the women's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time in eight tournament appearances. Sykes scored nine of her 24 points to spark a decisive third-quarter run in a 76-59 win over 12th-seeded Albany.
"I just wanted to make sure I gave my team my all," said Sykes, who had a team-high five steals. "I had to be in attack mode, and I couldn't take any possessions off."
That included a gasp-inducing moment with four minutes left, when Sykes was fouled and came up limping after falling hard to the court. Sykes first hurt her knee in a first-round tournament win over Chattanooga on March 22, 2014. And she reinjured it after playing only three games last season.
"If I get back up, I'm fine," said Sykes, who proceeded to hit both free throws. "I just had to suck it up, be tough and be a big girl."
In setting a school record for victories, Syracuse (27-7) will play either top-seeded South Carolina or Kansas State in the Sioux Falls Regional on Friday.
Alexis Peterson scored 22 points, while Bria Day came off the bench to grab 10 rebounds, while filling in for her twin sister, Brianna, who ran into early foul trouble.
The Great Danes (28-5) were unable to pull off a second consecutive upset after rallying from 11 points in the fourth quarter to knock off Florida on Friday. Shereesha Richards scored 23 points to close her record-breaking career at Albany, where the three-time America East player of the year became the program's first Division I All-American and career leading scorer.
"A lot of people didn't believe we'd make it this far," Richards said. "We beat the odds. It's sad that we lost but we have accomplished so much this year and there's more positives to look on then there's negatives. So I was happy."
The win over Florida was Albany's first in five tournament appearances, and the team also matched a school record for victories.
"What I'm feeling is proud," coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. "I don't want them to have their heads down. I don't want them to be said. I want them to feel blessed about the things we've done here."
The Great Danes showed resilience in gutting through the first half, which ended with Syracuse up 40-33. But Albany ran out of gas against the Orange's relentless press, deep bench and Sykes' determination.
Sykes led the way scoring Syracuse's first seven points of the third quarter in helping the Orange build a 47-35 lead. She then helped cap a 10-1 run by grabbing an offensive rebound and setting up a wide-open Maggie Morrison for a 3-point basket to put the Orange up 59-41 with 54 seconds left in the third quarter.
"She was everywhere," Peterson said of Sykes' performance. "She gave us everything we needed."
The announced crowd of 3,842 was the third largest for a women's game at Syracuse. It included a large contingent of Great Danes fans that made the 140-mile trip from Albany.
Down 11-6, Morrison hit consecutive contested 3-point baskets 30 seconds apart in putting the Orange ahead for good late in the first quarter.
His voice hoarse, Orange coach Quentin Hillsman called this another "pinch yourself" moment for a team that had a 9-20 record in his first season 10 years ago.
"I pinch myself after every win past nine," Hillsman said, with a laugh. "But it's not about me. It's about them. And I'm really happy for them."
Syracuse: Brianna Butler's showing struggles continued. The NCAA's top active 3-point threat finished 2 of 8 in 3-point attempts, and 2 of 11 overall for 6 points ... Improved to 77-4 at home against non-conference opponents in 10 seasons under Hillsman. ... Improved to 4-0 against Albany.
Albany: Had a seven-game winning streak snapped and lost for just the second time in 22 games. ... Forward Tiana-Jo Carter fouled out with 6:43 left, and starting guard Imani Tate fouled out 63 seconds remaining. ... The 76 points were the most allowed by Albany this year.
Syracuse will face top-seeded South Carolina or ninth-seeded Kansas State at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Friday.
Albany's season is over.