Women's Basketball

Cornelia Fondren thrives in multiple spots for Syracuse using toughness and versatility

Larry E. Reid Jr. | Staff Photographer

Cornelia Fondren can play four positions for Syracuse. She's the Orange's most valuable play, according to head coach Quentin Hillsman.

Cornelia Fondren wrestled away an offensive rebound from a player in the post. Then another, and another. Six in total. The clock wasn’t running and the score didn’t matter. Fondren just kept getting rebounds.

“Lay a body on her,” Syracuse assistant coach Tammi Reiss screamed to post players, some 8 inches taller than the 5-foot, 8-inch point guard by trade. “Box her out.”

She was throwing her competition — all teammates — around. No one wanted a piece of her. A typical scrimmage made even more typical by the way Fondren dominated. It was nothing out of the ordinary, and there was nothing that could be done to contain one of the shortest and most valuable players Syracuse has.

“The player I wouldn’t want to get in an alley with is Cornelia Fondren,” Reiss said. “She’s a beast in every aspect of the game. She just gets after it. You’re going to have to kill her to beat her.”

It’s a toughness and versatility that makes Fondren stand out. She was recruited as a point guard, but has played four of five positions during the season and even played center during Syracuse’s trip to Europe this summer. With the return of Brittney Sykes into the starting lineup, Fondren has returned to the bench for her senior year, but the significance of her role isn’t diminished.

Fondren finished second on Syracuse in rebounds, assists and steals as a junior. SU head coach Quentin Hillsman calls her the team’s most important player.

“I’m everywhere on the court. That’s what I love to do,” Fondren said. “… I enjoy rebounding, I enjoy scoring, I enjoy getting steals and passing the ball to my teammates to get assists.”

Fondren was physically sick on the court as her teammates kept asking her if she was OK. The middle schooler had a 105-degree fever, holding her head through the sickness and through the game.

Her teammates would run to get her water. They were worried about her. “I’m OK,” she told them. “I’m good. I’m good.” Fondren refused to acknowledge anything was wrong until she went to the doctor after her team won.

“When people be sick, they don’t want to push themselves,” said Fondren’s mother, Marilyn Partee. “She pushed herself to play.”

Fondren began lifting weights as a freshman in high school, which built the strength that’s allowed her to thrive in multiple roles.

Her teammates at Overton (Tennessee) High School called her, “The Mop,” because she was everywhere on the court.

After starting every game of her collegiate freshman season at point guard and averaging 18.3 minutes per game, her role shrunk as a sophomore when she came off the bench and only averaged 12.1 minutes.

But that’s when her career turned around as she returned to the starting lineup at shooting guard in 2014-15. Sykes battled back-to-back ACL tears and Fondren knew she had to step up in her junior year.

“That’s when she started coming back as the real Cornelia,” Partee said.

Fondren took charge of games, not only as a guard last season, but also as a forward due to Syracuse’s lack of depth. Her physicality and strength allowed her to stay relevant.

She contributed in ways she never had before and helped SU to a 22-win season.

“You put her down low, she can rebound. You can put her on top of our zone, on top of our press, she can get steals,” Hillsman said. “She’s just one of those players you have to account for.”

Though Fondren knows she’s not that big by college standards, her strength is deceptive, teammate Alexis Peterson said.

In three postseason games last season after guard Diamond Henderson tore her ACL, Fondren averaged 38.7 minutes and 16.7 points. Her performance hit an all-time high in the most important moments.

In the Orange’s first-round NCAA tournament win over Nebraska, she tied for a team high with nine rebounds and two steals while committing zero fouls in 40 minutes.

“You just aspire to be as tough and as strong as Corn is, physically,” Peterson said, “and be as hungry as she is when it comes to the offensive and defensive end.”

And her success has carried into her senior year through just one game.

Trailing by five entering the fourth quarter against Rhode Island on Friday night, Hillsman switched from his traditional 2-3 zone to a box-and-one defense. Fondren’s sole responsibility was to shut down the Rams’ Charise Wilson, who had 26 points up to that point.

Wilson received a crosscourt pass on URI’s final possession and heaved a 3 to try and tie the game. It fell short, just like every other one she attempted in the game’s final 10 minutes.

Fondren would start defending Wilson just a quarter of the way down the court and when she lurked behind the 3-point line, Fondren stuck her arm out to impede her motion.

Syracuse left Rhode Island with a 57-54 season-opening victory and Fondren with another example of her dominance.

“You get kids like that, with that mentality, you win games alone on grit, getting grimy and getting dirty,” Reiss said. “… And those are the kids you look for to be a part of your program because they’ll take you to the next level.”

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