Syracuse hoping for big payoff from run to championship game
INDIANAPOLIS >> When Brittney Sykes started playing AAU basketball, she didn't even know where Syracuse was.
The women's basketball program was almost as invisible to college fans.
Yet when it came to making her college choice, the 5-foot-9 guard bought the promise from coach Quentin Hillsman that she could be part of the solution by turning the Orange into a national contender. Mission accomplished.
"We came here to build this program up and now we're playing in a national championship," Sykes said. "We've done our job."
Syracuse still has to play UConn (37-0) in Tuesday night's championship game and is a heavy underdog against the three-time defending champion.
Regardless of the outcome, Syracuse (30-7) is already starting to see the payoff from its stunning postseason run that wasn't expected by many to go beyond the Sweet 16. Instead, after upsetting top-seeded South Carolina and perennial power Tennessee to reach the program's first Final Four, those around campus starting buying into the Orange, too.
"When both the men's and women's teams made Final Four, social media was buzzing and I'm sure (the campus) was celebrating," Sykes said. "I was kind of jealous I couldn't celebrate with them."
Sykes and her teammates still had too much work ahead of them.
But for a program that had made only four NCAA Tournament appearances before 2013, had only won two NCAA tourney games entering this postseason and played only four regular-season home games with more than 1,000 fans at the spacious Carrier Dome, this shocking run through the tournament could do a lot more than turn heads.
At some point, the women's program will get to hang a Final Four banner.
Senior Brianna Butler arrived in the same recruiting class as Sykes and is the NCAA's single-season record-holder for 3-pointers made (128). She said she believes the steady, sustained success under Hillsman is already changing perceptions and will help to attract better recruits to a school that was asking player to essentially take a leap of faith just a few years ago.
Bigger crowds are expected to follow and Syracuse could now take its place among the upper echelon of the ACC pecking order.
"Everyone has rallied behind us and is supporting us," guard Alexis Peterson said. "I think going forward, Syracuse has established a name for itself as one of the best programs in the country."
The only thing missing from Hillsman's resume is that national championship he's been talking about for a decade.
If the Orange can pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's sports Tuesday night, everything could change in upstate New York.
"It's funny because Brianna Butler hit me on the leg just before we went out for the jump ball (Sunday), and I said, 'What?"' Sykes said. "She said, 'This is what we came here for."'