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Orange Crushed: South Carolina Cruises Past Syracuse in NCAA Tournament

The top-seeded Gamecocks played a nearly perfect game in Columbia. It culminated in an imperfect ending for Syracuse who couldn't cap off another strong season with its first Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

An emotional Quentin Hillsman held back tears after the game as he sat next to a pair of guards and used what was left of his voice to answer questions from the media.

"These are my kids," Hillsan said with a raspy voice.  "These are my daughters. When they hurt, I hurt."

He had just watched his team get blitzkrieged in the biggest game of the season in a matchup that was all but over after a few minutes.  Syracuse's season came to an end on Sunday night with a decisive 97-68 loss to the No. 1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks (32-2) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Alexis Peterson scored a game-high 23 points for Syracuse (22-10), including the first seven points for the Orange. But after Peterson's 3-pointer to open the game, the Orange got on the wrong end of a 27-11 run.

"It was very difficult," Peterson said.  "We’re playing in a front of a large crowd so they were able to feed off their crowd’s energy and really make a run and it kind of slowed us down. We got really stagnant."

Peterson was one of only three players for the Orange who scored more than five points.  The Gamecocks' outscored Syracuse 51-11 in bench points since coach Dawn Staley used her starters sparingly in the second half.

The Orange almost upset the Gamecocks back in November and yearned for a chance to get some revenge from its Junkanoo Jam championship loss.  But there wasn't any redemption in the rematch in Columbia. All the Orange got was an overwhelming offensive performance by the Gamecocks, who head back to their third Sweet Sixteen in four years.

"South Carolina played a tremendous basketball game," Hillsman said.  "I give them a lot of credit.  They came out early and made some shots. They made 3’s early. We knew that if they came out and started making 3’s, we’d have a problem."

Hillsman's gameplan was to condense the zone and force South Carolina's shooters to beat him. He had to re-adjust that strategy when the Gamecocks hit 4-of-6 from deep to start the game.

"It made us start to come out a little bit," Hillsman said.  "It increased their points in the paint and that’s what we really needed to control."

Expanding the zone made Syracuse vulnerable to the opposing front line, particularly with center Briana Day stuck with foul trouble. It was a catch-22 that Hillsman had no answer for.

Syracuse's deficit grew to 28 at intermission and never got within single digits during the second half.  For the first time all season, Syracuse gave up more than 90 points, lost by more than 20 and allowed an opponent to shoot better than 55 percent from the field.

The top-seeded Gamecocks played a nearly perfect game on their home gym, where they've won 34 games in a row. It culminated in an imperfect ending for Syracuse, which has now lost two years in a row in the second round.

But the final score didn't change how Hillsman talked about his players after the game. He commended his team for not giving up in a second half when it scored just one fewer point than South Carolina.

"We wanted to compete, keep fighting and keep playing hard the entire game," Hillsman said.  "We’re not going to lay down and submit to anybody. That’s not how we do it at Syracuse."

The Orange matched the Gamecocks almost step for step in the second half, even though the lead hovered around 30 for most of it.  Syracuse finished off the season with a 43-point second half, one of its highest scoring frames of the season.

"Everyone should feel like I feel. Have nothing left," Hillsman said.  "We ain’t got nothing left. As far as I’m concerned, our season was a great success. Because if we had a game tomorrow, we couldn’t play because we ain’t got nothing left."