Syracuse earned a trip to the Final Four for the first time in program history last weekend, as did their semifinal opponent, the Washington Huskies. The teams face off Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time.
I talked to coach Quentin Hillsman and assistant coach Vonn Read about the team, and their impending match up.
Richard Anselmo: You’ve had some great games in this tournament. Your execution on both ends of the court has been outstanding. Watching your team play defense, especially against Tennessee, reminded me of the pressure defense of some old Tennessee teams.
Quentin Hillsman: (Laughs) I appreciate that. We did a pretty good job. We found a way to keep it interesting. We wanted to keep the pressure on them, be consistent and aggressive with our traps, and keep that aggressiveness at a high level.
Richard Anselmo: You have a tough defensive match up in Washington point guard Kelsey Plum. Is there a fine line you walk between paying a lot of attention to one player and making sure the others don’t beat you?
Quentin Hillsman: We’re very conscious of Washington’s overall talent. I don’t think you can get to the Final Four by riding one player’s coattails, no matter how good she is. As competent of a player as Plum is, they have other people who can be aggressive and can take up some of the load. Watching Washington up to this point, Kelsey has been their most dominant player, but she has had good help.
Richard Anselmo: Talk about the challenges of guarding a post player like Washington’s Chantel Osahor who can take and make three-point shots.
Quentin Hillsman: It forces you to concentrate on different things. In the overall, we understand the challenges ahead of guarding a three-point shooter. We are a zone team that plays different schemes. We have played against four guards that can go out and shoot the ball and have been successful. She is very unique, however, in that she can not only shoot the ball, but pass very well from that spot. She is extremely creative and skilled, so obviously that will be a big challenge.
Richard Anselmo: What do you want the country to learn about Syracuse women’s basketball this weekend?
Quentin Hillsman: We’re a team that works hard and competes at the highest level. I think you have a good chance of winning basketball games if your team will sacrifice and compete at that level. Up until this point, we’ve maintained that level.
Richard Anselmo: You also play the game at a level that is difficult for other teams to deal with, practically for teams that haven’t played you before.
Quentin Hillsman: It takes commitment and conditioning to play the kind of tempo we play, and I ask a lot of our players. We concentrate on trying to control the tempo, get the ball up the floor fast, and make other teams deal with the pace and speed we play at.
Richard Anselmo: Out of all your players, which ones seem to enjoy the daily grind of practice and working on the skills to make them better?
Quentin Hillsman: I think it’s a team commitment. They all seem to have that level of commitment to want to get better. They do commit – commit to the team, commit to our system – and it works. I sensed that sometime after Christmas this team could be really special. We have a chance to really get something done. As a team we just consistently commit to the process of what we are trying to do.
Richard Anselmo: Coach Read, it’s been a great season for you. How does this compare to other places you’ve been?
Vonn Read: This season has been very special – one of the highlights of my career. I have been around; I coached in the NBA, the WNBA and in college. This season definitely stands out. This has been a major accomplishment, reaching the Final Four. There are a lot of coaches that never get to take part in this.
Richard Anselmo: A lot of people didn’t expect this team to be there.
Vonn Read: We did make some inroads as a No. 4 seed, especially one that made it to the Final Four. Our kids believe in our system. As far as a style of play, we feel we are very unique. If you get the right match ups in this tournament, and we did, anything is possible. We executed our game plan, we took advantage of our match ups, and here we are in the Final Four.
Richard Anselmo: Absolutely – it’s been fun to watch. What is the country going to learn about Syracuse women’s basketball this weekend?
Vonn Read: The one thing that people are going to learn is that this is a team that likes to play high tempo basketball. We like to push the ball, we like to shoot a lot of 3s. I don’t think anyone pressures the ball like we do for 40 minutes. We’re third in the country in three-point attempts; we’ve made over 300 three-pointers, and lead the country in turnover margin. That’s our philosophy. We’re trying to get more shots than our opponent. Right now, we’re on pace to take 500 more shots than our opponents. That is the philosophy of ours.
Richard Anselmo: You have to put it in to win, that’s definitely a fun way to play. What do you say to the people that say, “This is not much of a tournament, you know UConn’s going to win. What’s the sense in watching?”
Vonn Read: Well, we don’t really get too concerned about that. We’re more focused in on Syracuse, rather than being concerned with anything to do with UConn. We’re playing a good Washington team; we have our hands full with that. That is all we’re focusing on now is our next game with Washington.
Richard Anselmo: Washington – another team that surprised a lot of people by getting there. What can you tell me about the challenges of defending Kelsey Plum?
Vonn Read: She is a tremendous scorer, sees the floor, and has the ability to get off her jump shot from anywhere. It’s kind of like Steph Curry at Golden State, starting the offense out with the jump shot. She is a very similar player. She is very explosive, and crafty with the ball. She can shoot the pull-up, shoot the three, and get all the way to the basket. She dominates the offense. We will have our hands full with Plum.
Richard Anselmo: How do you combat Washington’s size inside? They also play well close to the basket.
Vonn Read: I think we will be fine size-wise. We have played 2 dominant big players in South Carolina and Tennessee. I don’t think Washington’s as big of a threat inside as either of those 2 teams, so we should be fine with that.
Richard Anselmo: A lot of people were surprised by the way you handled Tennessee, especially with their post game. Could you talk about that process?
Vonn Read: The one thing that benefited us was that we played 3 teams that really relied on their inside game, starting with Albany, then South Carolina, and Tennessee. The game plan has not changed in three games, and we have gotten better at it. We feel that we had to beat those teams by taking away their inside game and forcing them to shoot jump shots. We feel if we can control that, get our hands on the ball and force turnovers, that that is a recipe for winning. Combined with shooting well in fourth quarters, that’s how we won those games. The match ups that we had we were able to capitalize on.
Richard Anselmo: Were there any feelings when you were playing Albany, or was it just another game? Considering that was another college stop for you.
Vonn Read: Not really. It was just another game. The nice thing was, I was able to see a lot of people who were there when I was there. I coached there for two years, and made good friends. The most important thing about the game was the opportunity to get to the Sweet 16 over anything else because it was all about the game.
Richard Anselmo: Talk about player buy-in for playing the game at the pace you do. Was it easy to get that, or were there challenges?
Vonn Read: It was easy to adapt to. Once we explained to the players why we were playing the way we do, they buy-in. We have the type of players who can play this style. That is what they like to do. We can push the ball, we have kids that can shoot the ball early in the shot clock, and we can get offensive rebounds that way, and get ourselves extra possessions. The one thing we kept telling our players was that if we can get more shots than our opponents, we can win a lot of games even when we don’t shoot better than our opponents. We’ve been doing that for the last two years. We’ve won games shooting 30 percent, only because we made more three’s, or have gotten a lot of rebounds. Whatever the case was in that game, we figured out a way to win the game. Our players have the freedom to shoot and we can overcome misses by getting offensive rebounds and playing aggressively.
Richard Anselmo: A lot of that seems to come from aggressiveness on the defensive end as well.
Vonn Read: Absolutely. Our defense sets the tempo for us. A lot of teams aren’t used to playing against a team that plays the style of defense that we do. Our kids are relentless and very aggressive. They take on the personality of our head coach. We just come after teams. The big question for our opponent is: Can you handle our pressure? That’s really the bottom line. That’s where it starts and ends for us. Shooting the ball, playing pressure defense, and forcing turnovers are all keys to winning.