Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman speaks at a news conference ahead of a women's college basketball regional final in the NCAA Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., Saturday, March 26, 2016. Syracuse plays Tennessee on Sunday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nati Harnik
March 31, 2016

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Quentin Hillsman has guided Syracuse to the Final Four just a decade after he took over a struggling program. Count UConn coach Geno Auriemma among the impressed.

''He has done an amazing job of getting his players to believe in what he's doing, and he's rallied them around the fact that they can do something that no one gave them an opportunity to do, even in their own league,'' Auriemma said. ''Syracuse quietly has had a great year.''

The Orange (29-7) will face Washington (26-10) in the national semifinals in Indianapolis on Sunday night, a breakthrough unimaginable at the turn of this century.

''You don't even want to know where Syracuse's program was before Q took over. You don't even want to know,'' Auriemma said.

A decade ago, the Orange women were watching the postseason on TV after going 9-18 and winning only two of 16 games in the Big East. From 1990 until Hillsman took over in 2006, while Jim Boeheim's men appeared in two Final Fours and won a national championship, the Orange women had only one winning season - 18-13 under Marianna Freeman in 2001-02.

The seeds of change were planted in 2000, when former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel was confronted with a big surprise one day in early April. The entire women's basketball team dropped by unannounced and delivered a memo signed by all 12 players with a clear message: They were sick of losing and tired of communication breakdowns with Freeman.

Freeman resigned in March 2003 with a 104-174 record. Her successor, Keith Cieplicki, fared even worse, going 28-55 over three tumultuous seasons that saw five players, two assistant coaches and the director of basketball operations leave the program amid allegations of threatened scholarships and racially insensitive remarks.

Hillsman joined the Syracuse staff in April 2005 from Alabama, where he spent a year as an assistant. He was involved in all facets of the program and was named head coach by former athletic director Daryl Gross after Cieplicki resigned in June 2006.

''Obviously, there were some challenges,''Hillsman said Thursday morning before a pep rally. ''Overall, it was a program that was rebuilding and aspiring to move in the right direction. I thought there was a chance to be successful and get great players.''

Hillsman has proved a master recruiter - from Nicole Michael, the school's second-leading scorer all-time and still its leading rebounder, to current senior stars, former McDonald's All-Americans Brittney Sykes and Brianna Butler, and junior point guard Alexis Peterson.

''Coach made it very clear that we had the task of making sure we helped build the program,'' Sykes said. ''I'm really happy for him. It took a lot to get to this point.''

In just his second year, Hillsman guided the Orange into uncharted territory - a national ranking for the first time in school history. Now, not being ranked is the exception.

This breakthrough season has had its share of ups and downs. Among other things, embarrassing defeats at Notre Dame (90-62) and at home against Louisville (71-53) in a four-day span in January led to some soul-searching.

''We were at a crossroads where you had played all these good teams and you hadn't won any other big games up to that point,'' Hillsman said. ''We had to kind of put our heads together and figure out what was important to us.''

''It was a wake-up call,'' Sykes added. ''We can't allow ourselves to not play hard and disappoint ourselves.''

Syracuse did not lose again until the Irish beat them for the ACC tournament title. The Orange's tournament run includes wins over top-seeded South Carolina and Tennessee.

''We entered this tournament with great expectations of being able to possibly be here (in the Final Four),'' Hillsman said. ''I thought our kids started to compete really well the second half of the season. I give our kids so much credit just for being tough and for toughing out some of these games.''

Syracuse is just the ninth school to send both the men's and women's basketball teams to the Final Four in the same year. Boeheim's men play North Carolina in the semifinals on Saturday night in Houston.

''He (Boeheim) has just been a great resource for me just being able to watch practice whenever I need to, and if I have a question, I can ask him,'' Hillsman said. ''I'm happy that it's coming to fruition - that we're at the pinnacle of this game.

''You look back at it and you hear how many things that you can't do, and it's not possible.''

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AP college basketball page: www.collegebasketball.com ; follow Kekis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greek1947

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