The final buzzer on Syracuse's season sounded even before the ball tipped at Memorial Coliseum Monday night.
One misplaced step by Brittney Sykes on Saturday while driving to the basket put the star sophomore in a great deal of discomfort. Sykes screeched out in pain, the crowd went deathly silent, and Syracuse's Cinderella hopes slowly dissipated. The right knee injury kept Sykes out for the rest of the tournament, but the Orange held on for a first-round win against the No. 11 Chattanooga Mocs.
Beating the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, on the other hand, would have taken a herculean effort. Doing so without Sykes was nearly impossible.
SU gave a valiant performance, but the second half comeback fell just short. Syracuse (23-10) lost 64-59, ending its season in the Round of 32. The Orange needed a perfect game given the circumstances and almost got one. Syracuse shut down the Kentucky shooters for most of the night, but the surprising number of turnovers (23) for Quentin Hillsman's team prevented the upset.
Sykes, who will be fully evaluated when she returns to Syracuse, averaged 16.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game this season. She made the All-ACC Coaches' Second Team.
"She leads our team in scoring and she does a lot of things on the offensive end of the floor," Hillsman said. "The unfortunate part of our sport is that sometimes athletes get hurt."
Without Sykes, this game was supposed to be a mismatch. The team that ranked 13th in the ACC in field goal percentage was without its most efficient shooter. And the opponent - the Wildcats - scored more than any other in the SEC.
The Orange outplayed all expectations and gave the partisan-Kentucky crowd a scare on its own floor. Syracuse came out with nothing to lose. They had already done something no previous Syracuse team had done - win a game in the NCAA Tournament. In Lexington, the Orange was playing with house money.
Brianna Butler started the game 2-8, but hit a three-pointer from the right corner to cut the 'Cats lead to 30-23. Butler finished the game with a team-high 15 points and grabbed three rebounds.
"Coach Q encourages us even if we’re having an off shooting night to keep putting them up because they’re going to fall."
Alexis Peterson stole the ball on the next play and scored to get within five points. In the first round, Kentucky scored 51 points in the first half. But the Orange went to intermission only trailing 32-25. If you hadn't known better, you may not have realized Syracuse was without its best player. Although Sykes hasn't missed any games this season, Coach Q has prepared his team for life without No. 20.
"In practice, we definitely emphasize situations in which someone was to ever foul out in a game or if anyone were to be missing," Butler said. "We definitely have preparation for situations such as this."
"Coach Q did a great job this season preparing us for that by putting us through tough situations in practice," center Shakeya Leary said.
But this was different, of course. This was an entire 40 minutes, not a drill. And it was in a tournament environment, not the quiet confines of the Melo Center.
After a few back-and-forth minutes to start the second half, the Orange finally got within two with about 12 minutes left. This time, it was Rachel Coffey's three which capped a 7-0 Syracuse run. After her basket, Syracuse only trailed 46-44. But it was as close as the Orange would ever get. SU kept the Wildcats from running away with a big lead, but couldn't tie the game up thereafter. It was a frustrating ending to the season for Sykes, who had to watch the game from the end of the bench.
Although it may be tempting to play the what-if game, the Orange proved a lot in the loss. Syracuse hung with a perennial tournament team in a de facto road game, even without being at full strength. An emerging star is freshman Briana Day, who scored 13 points on 5-7 shooting.
A popular saying in sports goes like this: "It's the journey, not the destination." The Orange should abide by that advice and forget this final destination - a loss to the Wildcats and the Sykes injury.
Syracuse started the year 11-1, reached a program-high No. 20 ranking earlier this season and won the Paradise Jam Tournament. And, of course, SU got its first NCAA Tournament win in program history after being 0-5 in the first round. There's a legitimate star in Sykes, a new single-season three point record by Butler and some promising freshman. This team took the program to unprecedented heights, all in the transition year to the ACC.
It was quite a journey. One the Orange had never been on before.