SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- You can easily picture the contrast between the two locker rooms when this upset was over. The Syracuse players were happy and vindicated; the South Carolina players crushed and tearful.
There are some familiar yearly scenarios in the NCAA tournament, on both the women's and men's side: When a good team that feels underappreciated plays loose and relaxed, knowing that there is, as the old saying goes, nothing to lose; and when a team that has, all season long, been perceived as a Final Four favorite, feels the pressure truly kick in because there is everything to lose.
And there likely was no one in the arena after No. 4 seed Syracuse's 80-72 upset of No. 1 seed South Carolina who understood perfectly the emotions of both sides than Orange assistant coach Tammi Reiss.
She was overjoyed for her Syracuse players and praised the fearless mentality they have developed under head coach Quentin Hillsman. In her first season with Syracuse, Reiss has watched how much Hillsman empowers the Orange to shoot, shoot, shoot. Don't waste time lamenting your miss, just look for your next good shot.
But Reiss also knew what was going on with South Carolina:
She was part of Virginia's standout backcourt, along with Gamecocks' coach Dawn Staley, from 1989-92. When Virginia beat Tennessee in the 1990 Elite Eight to go to the Final Four, Reiss recalls that "nothing to lose" feeling with which the Cavaliers played. As opposed to the strain of the next two seasons, when Virginia was expected to win the national championship and fell short both times -- in the national final in 1991 and the national semifinals in 1992.
"When you're the favorite, you can get a little tight," Reiss said. "You start to say, 'We have to win.' Whereas we played Tennessee [in 1990], they were the ones saying that. They were hosting the Final Four that year. So they had to win. But we won. We played loose and confident and fun.
"This bunch [of Syracuse players] feels that way. They are not supposed to be here, right? They weren't supposed to beat South Carolina. But they have. Being the underdog is an easier role. If people say it's not, they're lying. It's less pressure."
Certainly, the Orange seemed to play like they were having the most fun on Friday. Even in the first half, when their game plan of trying to deny the Gamecocks as much as possible in the paint seemed not to be working to their advantage, the Orange players were not discouraged.
Yes, Gamecocks guard Tina Roy had 17 points, having made five of South Carolina's seven 3-pointers in the first half. And the Gamecocks had a 43-33 lead. But Hillsman told his team to stick with the game plan, to believe that things would swing back around the Orange's way if they executed what he told them to do.
If the game was close, Hillsman felt sure that South Carolina -- which lost just one other time this season, to top-ranked UConn -- would really start to struggle making perimeter shots but still wouldn't be able to get the ball inside as much as the Gamecocks would want to.
It was as if he had looked into a crystal ball and foresaw the fourth quarter. Because everything he told his team would happen did, indeed, take place. The Orange outscored South Carolina 30-16 in the final period.
"We knew if we could stay within striking distance, we had a chance," said Syracuse junior guard Alexis Peterson, who had a game-high 26 points. "I thought today, over any other game, we really stuck together and never gave up on each other.
"Coach talked about before the game [how] we have to trust each other. We continued to make big play after big play."
This really wasn't about platitudes and feel-good statements, though. This was about Syracuse outplaying South Carolina, especially on the perimeter. Peterson was fantastic, and she had great support from Brittney Sykes (17 points and nine rebounds) and Brianna Butler (18 points).
South Carolina senior starting guards Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions got into foul trouble and were not as effective on either end of the court as they typically are. Mitchell went 3-of-11 from the field, finishing with eight points. Sessions was 0-for-3 and went scoreless.
By contrast, South Carolina interior players A'ja Wilson, Alaina Coates and Sarah Imovbioh were a combined 17-of-22 from the field for 41 points. When the Gamecocks got the ball inside, they were close to unstoppable. But South Carolina couldn't get it in there enough, a credit to Syracuse's defense.
Syracuse center Briana Day had a tough time offensively, going 2-of-12 from the field, but she stood her ground defensively. And when the Gamecocks needed to hit a few outside shots to loosen the Orange zone in the final quarter, they couldn't do it.
Hillsman is in his 10th season at Syracuse, which has never been this far in the NCAA tournament. This was the Orange's first Sweet 16 game, and now they will be playing Sunday for a trip to Indianapolis and the Women's Final Four. After Friday's upset, Hillsman was asked what went through his mind when the buzzer sounded and he knew his Orange had knocked off a No. 1 seed.
He was proud and happy for his players, of course. But he acknowledged that his mind then went to Staley, for whom he has great respect and admiration.
"Seeing their seniors' heads down and not happy, it did hurt," said Hillsman, who obviously would have felt even greater pain to see his own seniors' careers end on Friday. "I have a special place in my heart for Dawn. She's good people, and I thought of her a lot."
What Staley has done at South Carolina has been spectacular: Taking a program that for the most part was an afterthought in the SEC and making it a national championship contender and the nation's attendance leader. The Gamecocks went to the program's first Final Four last year and went undefeated in SEC play this year. They will be one of the top programs in the country again next year, with Wilson and Coates among those returning.
But this was a heartbreaker for the South Carolina seniors. Mitchell struggled to find words in the locker room afterward to speak with the media, her head buried as she cried. Sessions credited the Syracuse defense and the Orange's ability to make such big shots in the final period. Sessions knows that she and other seniors have been part of something very special at South Carolina and that the time will come when they will look back on all of it with an enormous sense of pride.
But what the Gamecocks felt Friday was the deep, aching despair that comes in direct proportion to the dream. Their dream was the biggest of all: to win a national championship. But their season ended in the Sweet 16.
"I know what they're going through; I've felt it myself," Reiss said of the Gamecocks. "I love Dawn Staley to death, and I feel for her and her team. Obviously, I wanted my girls to win. But you see their girls walking down the hall crying, going to the press conference.
"I've been there. You don't wish that on anybody."
Yet it's the essential nature of the NCAA tournament, every game. Somebody has to lose, and sometimes it's the team that didn't expect to be going home. The team that was reaching for something that now, at least for this year, is no longer possible.