Senior Kayla Alexander had one central dream all season---make her first NCAA Tournament.
But as Alexander slowly walked off the court in Thompson-Boiling Arena following a first round upset to 10th-seeded Creighton, it hardly felt like a dream come true. It was the culmination of the winningest four years stretch in program history, but it wasn't quite the cherry on top that Coach Quentin Hillsman or Alexander or fellow seniors Lacie Hall and Carmen Tyson-Thomas were hoping for.
"This isn't the way we thought or planned or imagined this (season) would end," Alexander said after the loss. "We had such high expectations for ourselves and this isn't how we expected to finish."
And for Syracuse women's basketball, that really says it all...about how far the program has come and how quickly Hillsman has raised the bar in a short period of time. "High expectations" is not a term you would traditionally hear in reference to SU women's basketball, a doormat of the Big East in the early-2000s. In fact, SU has never won a game in the NCAA tournament. Syracuse wasn't going to win the championship in 2013, but this season was certainly a step in the right direction.
"For (Alexander, Tyson-Thomas, and Hall) to get in the NCAA tournament in their senior year is very big for them and it's not something they'll ever forget," Hillsman said.
"It's been one heck of a year," Alexander told SU Athletics. "I really truly appreciate all of the experiences I went through, the ups and downs. I'm glad I got to experience it with this group of girls and this coaching staff."
One of the greatest "ups" came back on Jan. 23. Syracuse, then 15-2, was tied with St. John's with just 2.8 seconds left. Brittney Sykes stole an in-bounds pass and heaved a 50-foot, halfcourt prayer. It went in.
Three days later, in a loss to Villanova, Alexander broke Nicole Michael's career scoring record of 1,787 points. Alexander finished her collegiate career with 2,024 points. The Orange went on to win the next six consecutive conference games and rewrote the record books. At 22-3, Syracuse was ranked No. 18 in the Coaches Poll and No. 21 in the AP Poll, both team highs.
It seemed as if Syracuse would cruise into the NCAA tournament until a late-season slide occurred. The Orange lost a back-and-forth thriller with USF, almost upset heavily favored Notre Dame, and fell to Villanova in triple-overtime.
SU ended any doubts of missing the tournament with a quality win on Senior Night versus No. 13/14 Louisville and by beating Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals. When 7-seed Syracuse drew Creighton in the first round it appeared to be an excellent matchup. But ultimately, SU's strong perimeter defense and ability to force turnovers were not enough against an undersized outside shooting team from Omaha. The Orange lost 61-56, and Syracuse's historic run came to an abrupt halt.
"We never expected to end this early," CTT said. "We get here and...we need to finish."
SU finished the season 24-8, including an 11-5 conference record. The team finished with highest winning percentage in history (.750) and the fourth most wins (24). As the season came to an end, the awards started rolling in.
Alexander made the ALL-BIG EAST First Team and All-American Honorable Mention lists. She led the Orange with 17.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game. In the WNBA Draft, Alexander became the first SU player selected in the first round when the San Antonio Silver selected her 8th overall.
"It couldn't happen to a better kid," coach Hillsman said. "She's an unbelievable kid, an unbelievable player. To see her be rewarded for all her hard work and dedication is great."
Her first preseason game is on May 11th, just a day before Syracuse University holds the senior commencement ceremony.
"I never actually got to see my high school graduation because I was in Syracuse so I'd really love to walk for my college graduation," Alexander said.
Tyson-Thomas won the award for Big East Sixth-Man of the Year for her consistent performance off the bench. Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes both played in all 32 games and were named to the conference All-Freshman team. Hall, who reached the 1,000 point milestone in February, was chosen for SU Orange Scholar-Athlete of the Week in December. She majors in accounting and real estate and made two previous conference All-Academic teams.
"I loved coaching this team. I love my players because they really bring it every day," Hillsman said. "At the end of the day, I have to be happy with their effort and for what they've done this season."