INDIANAPOLIS -- Brittney Sykes didn't pick up the phone for a while after she tore her ACL for the second time in 10 months.
It was too hard to talk to people. They wanted to say the right thing, something encouraging. Sometimes they offered prayers. Sometimes they didn't know what to say. Sykes worried she wouldn't know what to say back. She didn't want to answer a lot of questions, and she'd just end up in tears. Best just to let the phone ring.
But when Breanna Stewart's name popped up on her screen, Sykes answered.
It wasn't because "Stewie" is one of the most famous women's basketball players on the planet. It was because, since the ninth grade, the two women have been close friends, bonded by basketball.
They had played against one another and on the same team, both in AAU and for USA Basketball. They've been roommates. They even discussed, for a time, whether it might be fun to play on the same team in college.
"She's family," Sykes said Monday.
Which is going to make Tuesday night's game a bit fraught with emotion for both players. The national championship is going to pit Stewart's UConn Huskies against Sykes' Syracuse Orange, which is also Stewart's hometown team. One of her best friends will be standing between her and what she wants most -- a fourth title.
Stewart could only smile when talking about Sykes on Monday.
"My relationship with her is like no other," Stewart said. "I've been in constant contact with her, because that's what friends do."
Sykes' injury struggles were going to be no different.
It was in the 2014 NCAA tournament, in the final minutes of Syracuse's first-ever tournament win, that Sykes tore her ACL for the first time. A devastating moment to be sure, but only a precursor of the gut-punch that was to come. Ten months later, after a long rehabilitation, Sykes returned to the court. Three games into her comeback -- a week after she'd been cleared -- she went down again, re-tearing the ligament in the same knee.
"It was a pretty traumatic experience for me, tearing it a second time like that," Skyes said.
Stewart and her parents were in close contact as Sykes absorbed the setback. Stewart texted almost daily. Sykes said she got care packages from the Stewarts that included joke books and orange candies, trying to lift her spirits. They offered for her to come stay with them if she needed to get away from campus for a bit.
"I was really thankful and appreciative," Sykes said. "They checked up on me constantly, make sure I was O.K. [Stewart] knew how to talk to me. She knew what to say, what not to say. I could just go to her and talk to her, and that made the process easier."
Stewart and Sykes became friends during their freshman year of high school when Stewart traveled south to play for the Philadelphia Belles AAU team. Sykes said she didn't event know where Syracuse was back then. When she found out, she couldn't believe how far Stewart was traveling each way to play with the team.
They discussed briefly whether they might be able to play college basketball together, but Stewart opted for Connecticut and Sykes went to Syracuse.
"We each had our own things we wanted to accomplish and we took different paths," Sykes said.
But they have always stayed in regular touch. And Stewart said she reached out often after Sykes' injuries.
"What she went through, these past two years, I was definitely there for her," Stewart said. "You don't want to wish that on anyone. Tearing it the first time was hard. And I knew she would fight her way back. But to do it again ... how often does that happen? But the way she's come back and not let it predict what was going to happen to her future, it took a lot of courage.
"The fact that she's led her team to the national championship game, when last year she wasn't even playing, shows a lot about her."
Sykes has, in fact, been a catalyst for the Orange's first-ever run to the Final Four and the title game. The redshirt junior guard is averaging 10.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. She has upped her offensive game in the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.0 points, including a 24-point game in the second round against Albany and 17 points on Sunday night against Washington.
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said Sykes' season turned the corner after a particularly rough night at home.
"We had a game in Syracuse and she was playing really bad," Hillsman said. "She is out in the hallway at halftime. I went up to her and said, 'You know, sometimes you have to reintroduce yourself to people, because they think you're not very good right now. Every now and then you have to reintroduce yourself.' And ever since that moment, she's played well.
"She's an amazing kid. Fighting through two ACLs on the same knee. It's tough. So she's been tremendous. I hope she continues to play well."
Sykes briefly considered sitting out this season as well to make sure she was completely healed.
"I think anybody might think they want to stop playing the game for a while," Sykes said. "You start to doubt it. Did you come back too early [the first time]? Did you do enough in rehab? Once all of that emotion dies down, you go into the rehab process, you realize you have enough time to come back and play."
Sykes said it hasn't quite hit yet that her team is playing for a championship Tuesday night.
"People said we didn't really celebrate [Sunday night]," Sykes said. "We didn't come to play for a national championship. We came to win one. You come all the way, why not win it?"
Which is exactly what Stewart will be trying to do as well. So maybe these two friends will just retreat to their respective corners until it's over?
Nope. Sykes and Stewart talked on Monday morning.
Sykes spotted a graphic on SportsCenter's Instagram account promoting Tuesday's game that featured a split-screen photo of both of them.
"I texted it to her and she immediately responded that she was going to post it on her Instagram and her game day pic," Skyes said. "I thought it was pretty cool."