Syracuse women stun South Carolina 80-72 in regional semis
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. >> Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman delivered a direct message to Brianna Butler at halftime.
"You've got to hit some shots," he told his star guard, "or we're going home."
Butler hit some shots, all right, and Syracuse is staying another couple days in South Dakota after upsetting No. 1 seed South Carolina 80-72 in the Sioux Falls Regional semifinal of the women's NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
Butler scored 10 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 3:01 left, to send the fourth-seeded Orange to a regional final for the first time. They'll play Ohio State or Tennessee on Sunday.
Syracuse trailed by as many as 13 late in the first half and was still down 11 in the middle of the third quarter before coming back to stun a Gamecocks team that looked destined to make another appearance in the Final Four. South Carolina got into early foul trouble and never could finish off the Orange.
"Even though we did get the lead, we were just off," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We were just not in sync. They did a good job at winning the game."
Alexis Peterson scored 25 points to lead the Orange (28-7), who won for the 14th time in 15 games. Brittney Sykes added 17 and Briana Day had 13 rebounds.
Alaina Coates had 18 points and 16 rebounds for South Carolina (33-2), whose only other loss was to Notre Dame. A'ja Wilson had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Tina Roy added 17 points off the bench for the Gamecocks.
Butler, the NCAA active leader in career 3-pointers, made just six of her last 35 attempts from beyond the arc coming into the game, and she got off to a slow start against the Gamecocks. Her pull-up jumper tied it at 61, and her 3-pointer gave the Orange the lead for good after Coates converted an entry pass from Tiffany Mitchell for a two-point lead. Butler's last 3-pointer made it 74-68 with 1:11 left.
"I have to give the credit to my teammates and coaches," Butler said. "They gave me the confidence to come out in the second half and fire. Lex told me they're going to fall. Even Coach gave me the confidence. Even if I was missing, he wanted me to keep shooting."
The Orange's zone defense sagged on star post players Wilson and Coates, giving Roy, Mitchell and Bianca Cuevas open looks from the perimeter. The Gamecocks attempted a season-high 32 3-pointers, but made only eight.
"When we were going through our scout, (Hillsman) said to limit their touches on the inside," Sykes said. "They're going to find a way to get the ball inside, and we had to limit that and guard the perimeter to the best of our ability."
Wilson, Coates and Sarah Imovbioh were a combined 17 for 22 from the field — a telling statistic, Staley said.
"We took the bait," she said. "Our post players are 17 for 22 from the floor, 41 points. Shooting at that percentage, we should have been trying to get that ball inside a lot more than we did."
The Gamecocks came in concerned about dealing with a pressing Syracuse defense that had been forcing 24.5 turnovers a game, most of any team in the country. The press was hardly a factor.
But with Peterson giving the Orange consistent scoring and Butler ramping up her offense late, the Orange were able to pull off their biggest win ever and avenge the loss to the Gamecocks that ended their season in 2015.
After the final buzzer, Peterson went to mid-court and took a bow, and then Day picked her up and carried her to where their teammates were celebrating.
Syracuse: Butler has started all 132 games of her career, tying the school record. ... The Orange's 28 wins are a school record.
South Carolina: Wilson, who leads the SEC with 3.1 blocks a game, swatted three shots and had four steals ... The Gamecocks came in having outscored their opponents in 101 of 136 quarters.
HOW FAR THEY'VE COME
Hillsman offered some perspective on how far his program has come since he took over in 2006.
"My first game coaching at Syracuse, it was an exhibition game and we lost in double overtime," he said. "I remember going home thinking, 'This is my last year. I'm quitting. This is too much.' From that point forward, we had to get players and build our program piece by piece. I take no credit. I'm not confused. You have to get good players and they have to play for you."
SO LONG, SENIORS
The Gamecocks say goodbye to five seniors, including starters in Mitchell, Asia Dozier and Khadijah Sessions.
"I told our players, 'If you're hurting, if you're crying because you're saying goodbye to our seniors, great," Staley said.
She said the returning players better dedicate themselves to doing the work so they won't be crying at this time next season, "to ensure that this doesn't take place prematurely anymore."
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