INDIANAPOLIS -- When Syracuse point guard Alexis Peterson talks about filling the lane, she might not be talking about basketball.
"I love to bowl," Peterson said on Saturday. "I have my own ball, my own bag, my own shoes, my own towel. I am a great bowler."
During her high school years back in Columbus, Ohio, Peterson and her mom, sisters and aunts would hit the lanes every Sunday. Peterson says she once bowled a 236 game.
This season, the Orange players -- who meet Washington in the second semifinal on Sunday (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse -- bowl to bond and get some time away from the basketball court.
And it can get intense. Whether the ball weighs 12 pounds or 20 ounces, the rivalry is real between Peterson and redshirt junior guard Brittney Sykes.
"If I come out with a strike or a spare, I am talking," said Peterson, who refers to herself and teammates as "mini PBAs." "If she gutters or doesn't pick up a spare, I get right after her and say, 'You know Brit, you just left it open for me and I'm going to take it.' She has beaten me a few times, but on my best day, Brit knows what's up."
While Sykes doesn't necessarily agree with Peterson's assessment of their bowling exploits -- "She definitely does not always beat me," Sykes said, "it's just whoever is hot" -- Peterson's bowling bravado is another example of the confidence and competitiveness that define her as a basketball player.
The NCAA tournament has been a four-game tribute to her approach. An average of 16 points per game during the regular season has turned into 25 a contest in March's biggest games. Peterson stands just 5-foot-7, but she was the biggest player on the floor for the Orange in the two most important wins in school history, scoring 26 and 29 points, respectively, against South Carolina and Tennessee in the Sioux Falls Regional.
"She's been phenomenal," said Sykes, who scored 17 points in the upset of the top-seeded Gamecocks. "She is really hard to guard. She's so small, but she plays like she's 6-4. Her energy is contagious. Having that in a point guard is really special for a team."
Peterson wasn't always this good. Despite scoring more than 2,100 points in her high school career at Ohio Northland, Peterson only played 12.3 minutes and averaged 3.0 points per game as a Syracuse freshman. But that kind of disappointment didn't become a setback. It only strengthened her resolve to the point where she wasn't just a starter as a sophomore, but she also made the All-ACC second team. This season, Peterson made the all-conference first team, averaging 16.1 points and 4.7 assists.
"Not playing right away did hit my confidence some, but at the same time, I'm a competitor," Peterson said. "For whatever reason, God wanted me to go through that, but I wasn't going to let anything stop me. I may have taken some things for granted, so since then, I just appreciate things so much more, and I'm going to give it my all every chance I get."
"She's now become all the intangibles that you need in a point guard. She thinks the game. She understands the game. She has put the team on her back in crucial moments and they follow." Syracuse assistant Tammi Reiss on Alexis Peterson
The Orange needed more than just Peterson's confidence and competitiveness at one point this season. Her breakthrough as a leader might have been the difference in Syracuse reaching its first Final Four.
Syracuse was just 3-3 in the ACC and coming off a pair of blowout losses to Notre Dame and Louisville. Peterson had to sit out the next game, a one-point win over Boston College, but she came back five days later against Miami, and things began to click.
"It started at Miami when I saw her come with that warrior in her," said Syracuse assistant coach Tammi Reiss, who was a two-time All-American guard at Virginia in 1991 and 1992 and played in three Final Fours.
Five games later, in an 83-73 victory over then-No. 10 Florida State, Peterson stepped it up even more.
"After hurting her hand and getting knocked down, she popped right back and took the game over," Reiss said. "I thought if she does this, this kid could be special."
That was part of an 11-game winning streak that took Syracuse all the way to the ACC tournament finals. Notre Dame got the best of the Orange again that day, but since then, Peterson has paved the way.
"She's now become all the intangibles that you need in a point guard," Reiss said. "She thinks the game. She understands the game. She has put the team on her back in crucial moments and they follow."
One of those big moments actually came earlier in the season, when Syracuse met Washington the day after Thanksgiving in Las Vegas. A 19-point Orange lead had dwindled to three. The ball was in Peterson's hands, much like it has been in every key moment in March. She worked off a triple screen designed to get her open, and she delivered, making the shot that became the final field goal of the game for Syracuse, with 1:37 left. The Orange won 66-62.
Both Syracuse and Washington are different and improved now, but even the opposition knows this has become Peterson's team.
"She has really taken that team over. Obviously, they have a lot of weapons, but she has taken control," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "That's the kid whose hands they want the ball in because she's going to make the right decisions."
Peterson can only hope that the Huskies are one more pin she can knock down to help get Syracuse to Tuesday's championship game.