Syracuse University coach Quentin Hillsman on the Final Four

Wednesday, all Final Four coaches were interviewed by a national media panel. Below is the transcript of the conversation with Syracuse University coach Quentin Hillsman.

THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman. Coach, an opening statement.

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Obviously it’s a great day for us. We’re here at this teleconference for an important reason because we made it to the Final Four. So we’re extremely ecstatic and happy to be participating and competing in our first Final Four. Being able to represent the ACC, a great conference, is a big accomplishment for us. We’re very humbled and honored to be able to do that.

I think going into this Final Four looking at obviously UConn being a staple in this Final Four, and for us and for the other two teams making their first appearances is obviously a great honor, and to be doing so — we entered this tournament with great expectations of being able to possibly be here. I thought our kids started to compete really well the second half of the season.

And obviously when you host the first two games, it’s set up for you to move through the tournament as long as you’re playing well and get to this point. And I give our kids so much credit just for being tough and for toughing out some of these games. And this is very exciting tournament for us and a very exciting time, very challenging. And just our players played hard and competed at a high level and we’re very humbled and grateful to be participating in the Final Four.

THE MODERATOR: Questions?

Q. Coach, talk about two years ago, Syracuse won their first game in the NCAA Women’s Tournament in program history. And you break the Top 25 for the first time in program history. And now here you are, your first Final Four in program history. For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with your program, really if you could talk us through the progress that you’ve made up there in the last three years?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Well, I think the biggest thing for us is just that being able to just make strides and to be able to move forward and to just continue to win basketball games. And obviously when we started this journey to get to this point we’ve always talked about winning championships. We never shied away from that. And I start every media day here at Syracuse by saying I want to go 48-0 and I want to win a national championship.

And a lot of times people sunk their teeth at it, but I think now, where we are now, people understand that we are able to compete at a high level, and we’re doing a very good job of getting our program with some very good players and some players that can help us win at an extremely high level.

Q. Talk about the adjustment that’s gone from the former Big East into the ACC. I hear coaches on the men’s side that there’s a lot of style differences between the old Big East and the ACC. Are there similar, I guess, comparisons you can draw on the women’s side?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Well, it is a bit of a different game. I thought that playing in the Big East was a very physical conference. And it was a conference where you kind of limped into the tournament. It was a very physical and tough conference.

I think now being in the ACC is a very good conference. It’s very skilled players, very good coaches like it was in the Big East. But I think now we are the best conference. If you look at Notre Dame, look at Louisville, look at Florida State, we’re definitely right up there at the top with any conference in the country. And our biggest competitors are there late, deep into the tournament.

Q. Talk about the players on your squad — you have Alexis Peterson and her 16 points, Brianna Butler, Bria Day and Brittney Sykes. Looks like there’s a couple of players who are kind of under the radar. One that jumps out is Isabella Slim. Talk about your key players for us, if you will.

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Well, obviously this year Alexis Peterson is leading us in scoring. And she’s been good for us all year long. She’s been tough and she’s made plays where we’ve needed her to make plays. And she’s just really carried us through rough patches in the season and games.

And you go to Brianna Butler who is arguably the best shooter in the country from behind the arc. She really makes shots. And she’s a volume 3-point shooter who can really get it going and make three, four, five in a row, and she’s been doing that for us all year.

Brittney Sykes, coming off two ACLs, was a McDonald’s All-American as was Brianna Butler, just coming in and really getting back into form. She’s been explosive late in the season for us and in the tournament. And we need her to do that to be able to move through this Final Four.

I think the last two, I believe, I want to really touch on is Briana Day who is our 5, and she plays the middle for us. She’s a very tough defender. She can run the floor, very athletic. And she’s really an anchor to our defensive end.

I think it’s Cornelia Fondren who comes off the bench and plays four positions for us. And she’s kind of like the hybrid player. She started for us at the point guard as a freshman. I actual thought the bench — she could give us a punch off the bench because she can play four positions, and she’s been good. So we’re just a very deep team and I think that moving through this tournament they should pay very great dividends for us.

Q. Looking at your schedule, non-conference schedule, you referenced this a little bit at the regionals. You have Maryland, Arizona State, Tennessee and Washington. Last year you had South Carolina. You spoke of playing these good teams not only to challenge yourself and to get better but to sort of scout them a little bit. You lost to Tennessee and then you beat them, and then you beat Washington earlier this year, now you’re playing them again. Just tick off how you use these opportunities against good teams to sort of see what they’ve got and maybe down the road play them and use it against them?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I think it’s huge. Because obviously when you’re going into our conference, into the ACC, it’s a very tough conference, and you have to challenge yourself and test yourself and kind of get a barometer on where you are early in the season. I thought that our schedule did that. We were facing tough games, facing tough games on the road. And I thought that we played pretty well in most of them.

And I thought going into our conference it really paid great dividends helped us get 13 wins in our conference this year.

Q. Was there something when you played Tennessee or played Washington? I know you can’t say too much, but something specific where you look and say, aha? And South Carolina last year, aha, this is what we have to do now?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I think those games happened so early in the season, that you kind of lose that a little bit because every team changes as they go through the season, personnel changes, whether it’s due to injuries or players kind of levelling off not playing as well as they were early. And obviously everyone makes adjustments and changes styles.

So I don’t know if you get a whole lot from it, but it’s good to be familiar with your opponent and know what you’re going to possibly face.

Q. Going back to that Louisville game, just the loss to Louisville, blowout loss to Louisville at home, what was the locker room like after that game and why was that game such a turning point in the season? You guys have lost one game since then.

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Locker room was very focused because we were at a crossroads where you had played all these good teams and you hadn’t won any other big games up and to that point. We had Notre Dame and Louisville back to back, which is arguably two of the top five programs in the country. And they were two very tough games. We had short turnarounds on those games. And we didn’t play well in those games. But you have to give them a lot of credit, too, because they were great basketball teams.

But it was a big crossroads for us. We had to kind of put our heads together and figure out what was important to us. Is it important just to go to these games and you show up and you try to compete or is it important to go to these games and win? And we had to make some adjustments and do things differently.

I thought that was the turning point of our season, because our kids really, really wanted to win. And we made some adjustments as far as our practices, as far as our focus, as far as just the way we play and just really, really dug our heels in and had a great end to the season.

Q. What kind of adjustments did you make at practice and things like that?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Actually it was rest. We started to rest more and get off our legs and get to these games fresh. We’ve always done that, but I think that we’ve done it a lot more this season because I knew we had a very good basketball team. We just needed to get to our games fresher. That’s what we did.

Q. Can you speak on the historical significance of you possibly being one, if not the first black male to bring a team to the Women’s Final Four. And second question, Carolyn Peck made a comment during the broadcast that it’s the hardest game to coach is the regional finals because so much is riding on that, getting to the Final Four. Can you just speak on those two questions, please?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Absolutely. It is a great honor to be the first African-American male to be in the Final Four. It’s significant. And you want to downplay it but you kind of can’t because it is what it is. And it’s a big responsibility and it’s an honor and it’s really humbling to be the first to do that.

And I think that we have a lot of — we have a ton of great coaches that are males in general and African-American at that. And it’s just an honor to be there and I want to represent us the best way that I can.

And going into the tournament, it’s tough to say which game is most important, because obviously you want to win the first one, but how heartbreaking is it to get to the second one and lose that one?

So I think it’s just about getting to that tournament and just really staying focused and trying to keep some kind of routine to what you’re doing and how you’re preparing for these games. So we’re looking forward to the challenge. And hopefully I have that problem — winning the first one and having to worry about the second one.

Q. I had a couple of things I was curious about. The first is it’s pretty well known it’s been written about that Coach Boeheim is the one to convince you to be willing to play the zone. Throughout the year and the years you’ve been there, how much do you and him continue to talk about how you can improve it?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I think, for me, it’s more watching and more watching how he manages in-game situations. So you can talk about it a lot, but until you manage it in a game it’s tough. And he’s 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 a question if I needed to.

But more than anything, you look at the window and you see all these banners here, and you see with the success they’ve had with this program and with his style of play and his style of play and his style of player, and you can see how you can win a lot of games doing that. So we’ve just kind of adopted that, that the best learning tool is watching and being in that moment and I have a great opportunity every day to watch and be in the moment of what I would say is the best coach, the best zone coach in the country.

Q. The other thing I was curious about here, Geno talked before you and he kind of compared you guys a little bit to the type of rebuild that Oregon State has had too. And he has brought up he doesn’t think Oregon State getting to the Final Four is an upset because they’re a 2 seed. You’re a Cinderella, and Washington is a Cinderella. Oregon State is new to the party. Does it make more special that you’re sharing it with other people also for women’s basketball? Or do you wish that more of the attention was on you as a Cinderella?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: It doesn’t matter because at Syracuse it’s big. And it’s very significant to us and to our fans and to our community here. And I think as you move into this tournament, you want to be there and no matter who is there with you, you can only do as much as you can do to get yourself there and to worry about your team. So obviously it’s an honor for all four teams to be there, but for us, folks knowing what’s happening here and the expectations moving forward, is to be able to go win two games and play hard.

Q. No matter what happens this weekend, you’re in the Final Four. How important is that in your mind going forward in the future?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I think it’s huge. When you get into this business, if you’re coaching a sport that has a championship at the end of the season, if it’s not your goal to win that, you probably shouldn’t be coaching. That has to be everyone’s goal no matter what level you’re coaching on is to win the national championship. And it’s great to be two games away from that.

And it’s very significant being in the Final Four. And I’m very happy and I’m very pleased that my players can experience it. It’s not something that no one can ever take that away. I think a lot of things you learn, people can’t take. And we’ve earned the right to be there. And we’ve won our games to get up to this point. So we’re very excited for the opportunity and I think it’s very significant to be the first Syracuse women’s basketball team to get to the Final Four.

Q. It’s going to be very helpful when you go on the recruiting trails, is it not?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I would hope so. I hope it matters and makes a difference because obviously it’s about players, and I think when you start thinking about your system, it’s not about your players, you’ve already lost the game. And it’s definitely about players, hopefully we can continue to attract the players here that can help us get to this point again.

Q. One last question, have you spoken with Coach Boeheim about what to expect at the Final Four?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: You know, yes and no. We have spoken just about being in this moment and what it means to be here and how significant it is.

But I think it’s two different animals. I think the women’s tournament and men’s tournament are different tournaments. So we haven’t really talked about that as much as we just talked about just being here and what a great accomplishment it was and proud of us getting here.

I said the same, because Coach goes from not being in the tournament to being in the Final Four. So I think this was an amazing year for him.

Q. First, going off what you were just asked, do you guys have plans to watch the men’s team on, I guess, what, Saturday/Sunday, and do you know if Boeheim, if you guys talked, do they get to watch you? Is there kind of like a team camaraderie in that way?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I know that as far as a lot of our games I know during the tournament this year he was watching our games from the media room. And I know other coaches were watching the games from their phones while we were playing. And we definitely got back to our hotel and watched the men’s game, too.

And there’s no question we’re going to be watching these games rooting each other, rooting each other on to the championship games.

Q. Have you talked to Mark Coyle or any of the other administrators about just kind of their travel plans? I know they’re planning to go to both Final Fours, but just kind of how that’s working with just support from the school and athletic department?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Yeah, they’re kind of doing the shuttle thing, flying back and forth between games and catching both of our games.

Our administration here has been really supportive of us doing what we’re doing and that’s the reason why we’re here. We have great administration. And I think even going back to our previous system, Dr. Post [phonetic] and Dr. Cantor, when they were here, they kind of started us going in the right direction, gave us the resources to be here and obviously [indiscernible] Mark Coyle has come in and kept us going in the right direction. So you have to have that trust and that stuff behind you to be able to be successful. And we have that here.

Q. And now a lot of talk has been going on the last couple of weeks about should the rims be lowered in women’s basketball. I know Geno obviously kind of introduced the idea several years ago. And then Alana DelaDon brought it up a couple of weeks ago. And then this week Diana Taurasi said she’s against the idea. I’m wondering if you had an opinion on the matter.

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I really don’t. I haven’t really given it much thought, to be honest. I think that we have a great game, and I will say that the players are becoming more athletic, and the game is becoming a game that is played at the rim. I wouldn’t say above the rim. But they’re played at the rim. So I don’t know how much it helps or hurts the game for the rim being at 10 feet or helps or hurts the game for the rim being at 9 feet or whatever they’re proposing.

But for us it’s about having the opportunity to play the game on a level playing field with men’s basketball and it’s definitely becoming that.

Q. With all the accolades she’s accumulated over the years, would you consider Breanna Stewart one of or maybe even the greatest women’s college basketball player ever?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: It will be hard to argue against there definitely being in that conversation. I think you have on the Cheryl Millers of the world and some of those players Sheryl Swoopes and things they’ve done. And Taurasi. You can throw in four or five UConn players that could be in the same conversation.

And for me it’s great. I think a lot of people make a big deal out of those choosing to go to UConn and not coming to Syracuse. Different things like that.

But I’m so happy for that kid. I saw her as a ninth grader watched her through her whole high school career here. She’s an amazing kid. Has an amazing family and she deserves everything that she’s getting. And she’s a special player. She’s definitely the hardest player to guard in college basketball right now. But compared to history, I don’t know.

I’ve been in this game about 14 years. I can only speak during my time of the game I would say she probably is, yes. But before that, it’s hard to say. But she’s a special kid and she’s got a special talent and just really happy for her success and what she’s done. You can’t have it happen to a better kid and a better person.

Q. Coach, can you talk about, I think you spent maybe like a dozen years after you finished your college playing career as — you coached high school and then you were an assistant at various programs I think even a little time as an assistant on the men’s side. How did all of that help you when you got the opportunity then at Syracuse, just experiencing different styles and the different things you learned along the way.

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: It definitely is when you make different styles at different places and coaching high school and AAU and coaching in the MAC conference and the Patriot League, you just see so many different styles of basketball and. You’re privy to the opportunity of being able to coach under a lot of different coaches. I think that you take a little bit from every stop that you’ve been in kind of make it into one product.

And I’ve definitely learned so much from every level from every coach that I’ve worked under. And it’s kind of molded me and the program into a style, light that I wanted to see it in.

I’m happy that it’s coming to fruition that we’re at the pinnacle of this game. And I think we’re moving into this Final Four, you look back at it and you hear how many things that you can’t do and it’s not possible. And I just think if you continue to stay the course and try to build a program and get the right people and the right players around you, get to the right situation that can happen and I’m just very happy that we’re seeing the fruits of our labor here at Syracuse.

Q. When you took that job, Syracuse had been to the NCAA Tournament just three times in their entire history. So you basically were — it wasn’t like you were rebuilding something, you were really building something there. Did you have that confidence from the very beginning that you could reach a point like this?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: There was no option, choice in my mind. I think that you have to aspire to be here and to be in the position to win the championship. And I think that, like I said in the earlier question, if it’s not your goal, then you probably shouldn’t be coaching the team.

It’s one of those things that you learn from being around great coaches and being in the Big East, coaching in the Big East, I always tell people I was raised in basketball in the best conference in the country at the time.

When you coach against Hall of Famers, Geno makes you better, makes you a become better coach. Harry Perretta, Hall of Fame coaches. Jose Fernandez makes you become better. They just make you a better coach. And I think all the experiences I’ve had in the Big East and even previous to that, it’s made me more competitive and made me a better coach, made me understand what we need to do to get to this level.

Q. Alexis Peterson just took over the regional in Sioux Falls. And she’s just been a very good player this year. And I think she’s really ascended in a lot of people’s eyes that maybe didn’t know how good she was. Can you put in perspective how she’s come along there and the fact she’s playing as well as most anybody in this NCAA Tournament?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Yeah, it’s really special and it’s really a special relationship that she and I have. Came in as a freshman, when you have some upperclassmen point guards that are leaders, I knew she had the ability to be a very good player.

I think when you come from a high school program to where you are the focal point of your team and you’re the point guard it’s kind of hard to play with other players that are very good players. And the freshman, she kind of struggles some with the idea of being able to really run a team.

I thought she was a great point guard, great leader and great competitor. But to be a great team player, it takes trust and it takes a lot of different aspects of team and she developed into that, had 26 points in the game in our first game and I didn’t realize — she had like nine points but she really distributed the ball and she’s becoming more of a player that can make her teammates better.

I think that’s been the biggest difference in our success this year and the previous years that she’s really become a leader on the floor.

Q. Do you think Maggie Morrison’s been able to make more of an impact on the post game. Her 3-pointing shooting has been kind of ignored, scrappy defense, being able to get steals on the press, and just get steals off bigs and going down low?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I think that for us, it’s probably split easily right down the middle. She’s definitely coming off the bench, making shots for us, which is huge in the way that we play. But also our pressure is a big part of what we do. And Maggie is just a very tough kid. She’s very scrappy and she’s — most times you don’t find a kid that scrappy on defense that can really come down the court and shoot the ball.

And that’s where she can become really special for our team, is that she’s a good defender in our system and she’s also a very good shooter in our system. So she has — she has equal parts for us and we’re just happy that she’s able to come in and help us.

Q. How hard is it to kind of come off the bench cold and try knock down 3s?\

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: For us, if you want to play, you have to be able to do that because that’s the way we play. I don’t know if I can answer how hard it is for her or for our team.

But I do know that we’ve been able to get some really good bench productivity out of Maggie and out of Cornelia and when Taylor is doing good and healthy she’ll come in and help us a lot.

But at the end of the day that’s definitely the way we play. To be able to play in our system, you have to be able to play that way.

Q. I’m just curious, if you could go back to the end of January, when you guys suffered that big home loss to Louisville, what did you tell your team after that, and what’s changed? You’ve only lost one game since then, and you’ve beaten every ranked team aside from Notre Dame in the ACC championship?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: In the locker room is make a decision. I think we’re just at a crossroads where we needed to win some big games. And we just really sat down as a program and said what are our goals. And our goals were and are to be where we are right now, to be in the Final Four and trying to win a national championship.

And I think that we just came out of that room and just said, hey, what’s the path to getting to it. A lot of it was sometimes less is better.

And we get off our feet more. We’ve got more energy and got some rest and really concentrated on probably about 20 to 30 percent of what more will win us a game, working on our pressure defense, working on shooting 3 balls is really what’s helped us come to this point.

Q. And what does it say about the culture of your team that you’ve gotten big contributions from Maggie and Cornelia, coming off the bench, and those guys aren’t starting? So is it kind of a player-led thing in terms of selflessness, or is that just something you’ve been preaching since day one?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Since this is my second year here, we’ve always tried to have seven starters. That’s important to us. We need to have seven players at any given moment can step up and play 25-plus minutes and be productive.

And I think that in this game you deal with injuries and you deal with players being sick or a multitude of other things that require players to get them out of the game more or, B, just not perform well on that night.

And I think that as a coach starting is not important. But what’s important is your ability to compete at a high level night in and night out. We need seven players to be able to do that. So that really goes along with our thinking.

Q. Are you worried at all about the health status of Alexis Peterson going into the Washington game?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: No, she is 100 percent healthy. We’ve been resting, getting off our feet, and she’s doing well. So we are 100 percent healthy and excited about the game.

Q. What’s the reaction been like from friends and family back home for you in Suitland? And second part of the question is, in your time at Forestville High School were there any people or moments that helped influence, prepare you for being a coach?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: Well, home is home. And they’re very excited, from friends and to families, to former coaches and so on and so forth. They’re all very excited for us and where we are.

Yeah, Forestville High School was special, special place. And Aaron Holder was my high school coach, and he really instilled in me doing things the right way, being a hard worker, and was responsible for me becoming a basketball player and becoming a good coach. What he’s done for me has been so big and he’s the way he coaches and the way he disciplines and the way he motivates you, the way he has a lot of confidence in you.

He’s been great. That’s where it started with me is with him at Forestville High School. And he’s been awesome.

Q. I know this is four or five months ago, you guys played Washington in Las Vegas in a preseason tournament. What do you recall most about that game, and how much do you draw upon that this week as you prepare for that again?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: It’s been a while back going into that game. We know how explosive they are. We they know they have a very good basketball team. They have players that can score and good balance. Going into that game we knew that it would be a very tough game. And they’re very good basketball team.

And we jumped out on them pretty good. But they made a run and really narrowed the game and made it a really tough game for us. And that’s the biggest thing that I remember now is just how tough it was to kind of close them out. They did a great job getting back into the basketball game.

I think that we’re both very different teams right now. And moving into this game is, it’s hard to take a ton from it, but you can definitely look back on it and be familiar with that game and hope you can get nuggets from it that can help you move on to the next game.

Q. In what ways does Washington look different compared to then and certainly now this month and the run they’ve been on?

QUENTIN HILLSMAN: I think a couple of things: They’re scoring the basketball. They shoot a higher percentage. They’re really doing a very great job of getting the ball into the team’s hands and making plays.

Anytime you have a team that really understands really the goal with the ball in certain moments of the game is very big. Coach Neighbors is doing a phenomenal job. He’s great coach. And he has them playing well right now.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.

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