The best yet?: Syracuse reflects on historic season complete with 1st NCAA tournament win
Chase Gaewski | Managing Editor
It didn’t matter that Brittney Sykes has been relegated to crutches for the time being. Or that Brianna Butler missed 14 shots as Syracuse’s season ended at the hands of Kentucky. Or even that Rachel Coffey will not don an Orange uniform again.
Syracuse set a goal for itself at media day in October: to finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top five, and the Orange nailed it.
Despite the heartbreak that usually accompanies the end of each season, it didn’t take long for head coach Quentin Hillsman and his players to sit back, take a wide glance at their year and smile as they reflected on what they achieved and what’s to come.
“We kind of knew who the powerhouse teams were in the ACC and we wanted to be one of them,” Sykes, a sophomore, said. “To finish fifth is a statement in its own and shows that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Syracuse (23-10, 10-6 ACC) placed fifth in the ACC, won a game in the conference tournament and won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in program history. The Orange earned a No. 6 seed and defeated Chattanooga — even while losing Sykes to a torn ACL and meniscus — before falling to third-seeded Kentucky in the second round.
This Syracuse team scored more than any other in Hillsman’s eight-year tenure, and hit its goal of double-digit ACC wins.
“I think everything we set out to accomplish, we did,” Hillsman said. “All the things that we’ve done this season, that our players have accomplished, have been tremendous.”
In 2012–13, Syracuse finished 24-8 with the best winning percentage in school history. Much of that success came from the dominance of center Kayla Alexander, who left SU as the program’s leading scorer, as well as starting guard Elashier Hall and Carmen Tyson-Thomas.
Still, the Orange went on to make program history this season and is poised to build on that success next year.
“They are young, and they’ve been through so much already,” senior point guard Rachel Coffey said. “I think they’re all ready.”
Had Syracuse lost three or four games in its 13-game nonconference schedule, Hillsman said he still would’ve declared it a great stretch.
Even better, the Orange lost just two before the start of ACC play.
On Nov. 30, sophomore Brianna Butler dropped 29 points to lead SU to an upset of No. 12 Texas A&M, highlighting a nonconference slate that shot Syracuse up to a program-high No. 20 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and preparing SU for its rigorous ACC schedule.
“When you’re not playing good enough competition,” Hillsman said, “you kind of get a false sense of reality of how good you are, and I didn’t want our kids to have that.”
The Orange’s first go-round in the ACC had its highs and lows.
It took three tries to notch the first conference win. Duke coasted to a 33-point win. Notre Dame, which still hasn’t lost, blew out the Orange by 37. And only one of SU’s six ACC losses was by a single-digit margin.
“We just have to use those games as incentive to get better,” Butler said. “Look at what we did wrong, and try to improve on that for next year.”
But after a 1-3 start to conference play, SU rattled off two separate four-game winning streaks — one of which included an upset of No. 6 North Carolina — to earn the fifth seed in the ACC tournament before advancing to the second round.
In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Orange faced its biggest obstacle of the year in watching Sykes, SU’s leading scorer, hit the hardwood with her torn ACL and meniscus in the second half against Chattanooga — and then having to continue the game.
SU collected itself and prevailed by six points, and in the next round fought Kentucky down to the wire before ultimately falling short.
“We knew with her being out, we had to come together,” Coffey said, “and I think we really played team basketball.”
In addition to losing two starters in Coffey and center Shakeya Leary, as well as reserve guard La’Shay Taft, the Orange may very well have to begin next season without Sykes.
Sykes has yet to undergo surgery on her right knee, so a timetable for her return is uncertain.
“It’s tough to say,” Hillsman said. “Some people take longer, then you got Adrian Peterson. I’m not going to bring her back until she’s ready to play.”
At the beginning of next year, the annual questions will resurface about how the Orange will move on, this time from another historic season.
Sykes has her answer already.
“Everybody was trying to figure out what we were going to do when we lost Kayla, Lacie and Carmen. Same thing,” Sykes said. “For any team, they should have full confidence that they’re going to come back great and I believe in my team.
“Obviously, we made up for it. We’re going to make up for it again.”
Published on April 8, 2014 at 3:03 am