Women's Basketball

Schwedelson: Syracuse’s Final Four run validates expectations for 2012 recruiting class

Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer

Brianna Butler was the highest rated recruit in SU's 2012 recruiting class, which was ranked as the sixth best in the country.

INDIANAPOLIS — Ever since signing on the dotted line, stepping onto campus and pulling a Syracuse jersey over their heads for the first time, the members of the Orange’s 2012 recruiting class had a reputation to live up to.

Brianna Butler. Brittney Sykes. Cornelia Fondren. Taylor Ford. On their own they were heralded recruits from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Tennessee and New York, respectively. But together they arrived as the best batch of incoming freshmen the program had ever seen. One that had the potential to push the program over the top but had never reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in three tries.

In their final season, their last shot to leave a mark on the school no one expected to crash the national landscape of women’s basketball, they reached the sport’s final day.

Syracuse’s (30-9, 13-3 Atlantic Coast) improbable run to the title game was spearheaded by the 2012 No. 6 recruiting class. Now, four years later, they leave as the most accomplished class in program history. For three years, the Orange broke program records, but hardly fulfilled the expectations of a group put in the top tier of recruiting classes. All of the inconsistencies over the years, the injuries to a star player and the inability to beat ranked teams can be thrown out the window.

All of the expectations for that class are now validated.

“I think we showed people what kind of class we were,” Fondren said. “Most people probably didn’t think we would affect the program. We just wanted to come in and make a difference.”

Before 2014, Syracuse had never won an NCAA tournament game. Over the past three seasons, it’s won seven, including five in the past month. This season’s 30 wins marked a program record. SU also reached its first-ever Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship game.

The accomplishments are a reflection of the entire team, but after back-to-back blowout losses to No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 7 Louisville in late January, the season was at a crossroads. The legacy of Sykes, Butler, Fondren and Ford hung in the balance.

And that’s when their legacies started to take shape, when their older teammates could only watch from the stands and their younger ones searched for a standard to look up to. That’s when Syracuse won 16 of its next 17 before falling in the national championship game to one of the greatest dynasties in the sport’s history.

“They’ve been through some trials and tribulations and then they brought it all together and it culminated in this magical season and it truly was a magical season for those kids,” assistant coach Tammi Reiss said. “That’s a credit to them. They got the monkey off their back.”

The run might not have happened without junior point guard Alexis Peterson dazzling her way past defenders and to the basket. It might not have happened without junior center Briana Day fighting around, over and through opposing players for rebounds.

SUvLouisville-25

Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer

But to push Syracuse to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time, Sykes led the team in scoring with 24 points, the best performance of her career given the stakes, as she turned in a vintage performance reminiscent of her play before her two ACL tears.

Against No. 1 seed South Carolina, Butler knocked down the key shots. A jumper with five minutes to play tied it up. A 3-pointer with three minutes to play gave Syracuse the lead by one. Another 3 with a minute left pushed the Orange’s cushion to six.

“These two players will give us the ability to compete with anyone in the country,” Hillsman said in November 2011 of Butler and Sykes, the two McDonald’s All-Americans ranked No. 14 and No. 31, respectively by ESPN Hoopgurlz (Fondren was ranked No. 74).

When the class came in, they set a goal of reaching four straight NCAA tournaments. Another record completed. But as freshmen, with Butler, Sykes and Fondren starting, they fell short of the second round.

As sophomores, Sykes tore her ACL in SU’s first-ever tournament win before losing to Kentucky in the Round of 32.

As juniors, Sykes missed nearly the entire season and the entire postseason after re-tearing her ACL just three games after returning.

Entering their last year, they had one final shot. One last chance with the full arsenal Hillsman crafted four years prior. He said there was no pressure on them because they always had the talent.

“They just did what they could do,” Hillsman said. “They came in and every year it was one more step to get better.”

It wasn’t until their senior year that the on-court results matched the projections. In five NCAA tournament wins, the quartet combined for 39.6 points per game and 16.2 rebounds per game.

This was the type of production Hillsman could have envisioned in this class. It’s what dangled in front of his eyes when Sykes returned from injuries. It’s what his 10 years as Syracuse’s head coach all led up to.

“You’re supposed to win when you have the best players,” Reiss said. “It’s what’s supposed to happen.”

And finally, four years later, it did.

Paul Schwedelson is an Asst. Sports Editor at The Daily Orange where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at pmschwed@syr.edu or @pschweds.

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