GREENSBORO, N.C. -- While the ACC tournament semifinals were played without a team from North Carolina for the first time Saturday, here's what hasn't changed.
Notre Dame, the conference empress since joining a league dominated by Tobacco Road schools three years ago, extended its reign to 56-1 in the ACC by eliminating fourth-seeded Miami 78-67 at the Greensboro Coliseum. Headier still, the victory puts the Irish in the 30-win-and-likely-more column for the sixth consecutive season; the last time the Irish failed to reach those heights was 2009-10 when they won 29 games.
As for their opponent in Sunday's championship game (ESPN, 12:30 p.m. ET), welcome to the party, Syracuse. The Orange -- who are 25-6 this season and the tourney's No. 3 seed -- had never been to an ACC semifinal before defeating NC State on Friday. Upsetting No. 2 seed Louisville 80-75 on Saturday to earn a spot in the title game elevates the best season in program history one more notch.
"We can beat anyone," promised junior center Briana Day, celebrating her team's relentless refusal to wilt despite losing a 12-point lead to the Cardinals, whose only previous loss this calendar year came to Notre Dame, 66-61 on Feb. 7.
The Fighting Irish will look to cement their place as the second-best team in the land -- behind three-time defending NCAA champion UConn -- while, win or lose Sunday, Syracuse probably will be hosting first- and second-round games of the NCAA tournament in the Carrier Dome.
But make no mistake. These Orange -- the NCAA leader in turnover margin -- want the ACC trophy.
"Nobody wants to be in a job and not get paid," Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. "That would be payment."
The animated Hillsman, who slipped off his suit jacket early in Saturday's game to reveal a glitzy gold vest, repeated the word toughness in chronicling a battle of nine lead changes and seven ties. Nothing here resembled Louisville dominating the Orange in a 71-53 rout on Jan. 25 in the Carrier Dome. "You won't see that team again," Hillsman quipped afterward.
"We haven't lost since," he said on Saturday.
Winner of its last 11 games, Syracuse trailed Louisville 73-69 at the 3:23 mark when Day (11 points on 5-of-8 shooting) fouled out. But Syracuse didn't falter, something Cardinals coach Jeff Walz noted postgame saying, "We got outhustled and out-toughed at crunch time."
Foul trouble haunted Syracuse senior guard Brianna Butler most of the day, but the nation's leader in career 3-pointers made padded her total with the 354th of her career to pull Syracuse within one point. Cornelia Fondren followed with the go-ahead free throws, 74-73, with 2:45 left. The senior guard shoots 59.3 percent from the line and had missed four foul shots earlier but felt no jitters.
"I was really frustrated with myself at the beginning," said Fondren, who came off the bench for Syracuse's only double-double (18 points, 13 rebounds). "I do not like missing free throws because I worked so much on them before we even got here. People say I'm a bad free throw shooter, and that gets my confidence down, but my teammates had faith in me and [teammate] Bri Butler had just knocked down that 3. That was game."
Almost. In a blink, Louisville was underneath its own basket, but a menacing block by junior center Bria Day kept Cardinals starter Mariya Moore scoreless, and another Butler jumper pushed it to 76-73.
"We always wanted to be here. We get a chance to host [NCAA tournament games]. This is a big win. It just feels great. Words can't really explain it." Cornelia Fondren , on Syracuse advancing to the ACC final
The Cardinals' Taja Cole cut it to 76-75 with 1:05 to play, and ACC player of the year Myisha Hines-Allen had a chance to swing it back to Louisville, but the shot was too hard, forcing the Cardinals to foul.
Back at the line, Fondren drained both with 18.1 seconds left, causing senior Maggie Morrison to hop up and down in the ensuing team huddle while the brilliant display of Orange behind the Syracuse bench showed its appreciation. Butler sank two more to seal the Orange's first trip to a conference tournament final since 1988 (they lost in the Big East final in 1988 but won it in 1985; this is their third appearance).
"We always wanted to be here," Fondren said. "We get a chance to host [NCAA tournament games]. This is a big win. It just feels great. Words can't really explain it."
Meanwhile, Notre Dame was methodical in picking apart a Miami team (24-8) that could not match the Irish's depth in the second half. The Irish shot 58 percent from the field after the break, and Brianna Turner's 17 points led four players in double figures, while the fifth, Michaela Mabrey, scored nine.
"Any time we took the lead or they were on the ropes, they hit a big shot," Miami coach Katie Meier said, "and it was a different kid each time."
"Any time we took the lead or they were on the ropes, they hit a big shot, and it was a different kid each time." Miami coach Katie Meier, on Notre Dame's depth
While the word for Syracuse might be toughness, resilience has allowed the Irish to thrive again in an ACC that espnW bracketologist Charlie Creme projects to send six teams to the NCAA tournament. Without two-time ACC tournament MVP Jewell Loyd, who stunned the coaching staff by leaving early for the WNBA after last season, and given the injury to Turner, who missed six games early, Notre Dame had every reason to slip a notch this season.
But it has been business as usual for a team that has seven losses since the start of the 2012-13 season, with five of those coming to UConn. Syracuse is 2-28 against Notre Dame, without a win since 2002. The Irish romped in the last meeting 90-62.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she expected a tougher matchup Sunday.
"They're going to come after you," McGraw said. "I think the third day of a tournament maybe they might be a little fatigued, so it will be interesting to see how the press works, but I think they're a team that's capable."
Tired? Not us, say the Orange, giddy in their locker room about the chance to continue their historic run.
"It feels great," Morrison said. "I'm a fifth-year senior and I haven't been to any ACC championship games."
That changes Sunday.