Elite Eight foes Tennessee, Syracuse peaking at perfect time

Breakdown of the upsets in Sioux Falls (2:30)

ESPN's Stephanie White and Beth Mowins discuss Syracuse upsetting South Carolina and Tennessee defeating Ohio State. (2:30)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- If you'd been in a remote spot of the planet with no contact with the outside world for the past several months -- if such a place still exists -- and returned home today, you would not be surprised Tennessee's women are in the Elite Eight.

"So what?" you'd say. "Tennessee has been in a million regional finals."

Actually, this will be the 28th regional final for the Lady Vols. But the odds are overwhelmingly that you do know why it's notable that Tennessee has reached this level again. The Lady Vols had 13 losses coming into this NCAA tournament, and at No. 7 had the lowest seed in program history. Yet they are a win away from their 19th Women's Final Four, and will face Syracuse on Sunday (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET).

"I'm just so proud of this team," Tennessee forward Bashaara Graves said. "I mean, the regular season didn't go as well as we wanted it to go. This postseason, we've been doing awesome. We're playing together. We're just doing all the right things at the right time."

You could say the same thing about No. 4 seed Syracuse, though, which pulled one of the bigger upsets of the tournament in knocking out No. 1 South Carolina 80-72 in the Sweet 16 on Friday here in Sioux Falls.

From a program history standpoint, Tennessee and Syracuse couldn't be more different. The Lady Vols have won eight NCAA titles; the Orange played in their first Sweet 16 game Friday and will be in their first Elite Eight game Sunday.

Tennesssee has one of the most passionate fan bases in women's athletics. Syracuse is accustomed to playing in front of less than 1,000 fans -- and sometimes just a couple of hundred -- in the cavernous Carrier Dome. The team did, at least, get crowds of 2,445 and 3,842 for its two NCAA tournament games.

But past and pedigree aside, Syracuse looks ready to be here. In coach Quentin Hillsman's 10th season, the program has reached a new level, one that he has been working toward for a long time.

Following the victory over South Carolina, Hillsman reflected back to when he first took the job, lost an exhibition game in double overtime, and figured he wouldn't last as coach past that season.

Now, by seed anyway, his team is actually the favorite going into the Elite Eight.

"We have a special group of kids," Hillsman said. "I always tell them, 'You guys have to take me there; I can't play.' I give them a lot of credit, they're taking me on this ride. I'm just riding their coattails into the next game."

Not exactly. Hillsman is the one who has taught and committed to a system of playing mostly a 2-3 zone on defense and not being shy about shooting on offense. He said that Syracuse men's coach Jim Boeheim has been the inspiration for why he has been so committed to the zone. Hillsman preferred man-to-man defense until he started watching the Syracuse men practice and picked up tips from Boeheim.

"He kind of would come to me and say, 'Hey, make sure you get the high post covered.' He would give me nuggets of things," Hillsman said. "You can watch their staff, how they break it down. He's a master of that. Coach Boeheim is the best. You have to watch the best in the business. He totally converted me, and 10 years later, this is what I'm still doing."

By contrast, Tennessee has long been primarily a man-to-man defensive team, but the Lady Vols played zone almost the entire game Friday in their 78-62 victory against Ohio State and star guard Kelsey Mitchell.

"I'm a man-to-man defensive coach," Tennessee's Holly Warlick said, "but I also want to win the basketball game."

Syracuse and Tennessee met back on Nov. 20 in Knoxville, with the Lady Vols prevailing 57-55. Tennessee was successful getting the ball inside then, with center Mercedes Russell and Graves combining for 29 points on 14-of-20 shooting with 18 rebounds. Those two players were even better Friday night against Ohio State, too, combining for 39 points and 24 rebounds.

So can we expect Tennessee to attack Syracuse in a similar way? Yes, but with some tweaks.

"We're going to try to pound it inside against Syracuse," Warlick said, although that is sort of the general game plan for Tennessee against everyone. "I think Syracuse, for the most part, did a great job of limiting South Carolina getting the ball inside.

"So we're going to have to be really creative and make sure we don't turn over the basketball trying to force it."

Ultimately, you could say it's a bonus at this point for both teams to be in the Elite Eight. But they won't be thinking that way. Tennessee has been here many times, and Syracuse hasn't. However, that's not what matters Sunday.

It will be about which of these two teams peaking at the perfect time can extend that peak a little longer.