Storrs, Conn. – Syracuse got off to a hot start in their NCAA Tournament opener and never looked back, handling Iowa State, 85-65.
Freshman Gabby Cooper set the pace for the Orange, hitting five three-pointers in the first 6:30 of the game as the team rushed out to a 22-6 lead. On the season, Cooper attempted a team-leading 263 threes, making just 70 (.289). In her last two games, however, she is now 14-31 (.451).
Cooper was sanguine about her shooting, saying that she knew things were working.
“When the first one went in. it felt natural. It was a good day,” she said with a smile. “A lot of my shots were actually wide open, so that made it easier.”
The Cyclones were shell-shocked by their opponent’s hot scoring and superior athleticism, and they shot a miserable 2-18 for the first quarter. They settled down at the break and began to claw their way back, as the lack of discipline inherent in Syracuse’s playing style slowed the scoring onslaught. At the half, however, they had cut the differential only by four, and the teams went into the locker room with Syracuse ahead by 21, 45-24.
The Orange play an aggressive, high-contact defense that is effective in part because officials are loath to call a foul on every possession. They press for forty minutes, and Iowa State did not respond well, failing to get the ball to the middle and getting trapped and turned over on the sidelines.
When the Cyclones began to break the press, however, Syracuse did not recover well, and frequently gave up a score. When the press works well, however, it is frustrating and even demoralizing to the opponent. In this contest, Syracuse scored 19 points off 18 Iowa State turnovers.
The Cyclones couldn’t handle the quickness of Syracuse on either end of the floor. Neither team shot very well in the second half, but to have a chance of victory, Iowa State needed to dominate a quarter as Syracuse had done in the first period. They shot 44 percent in the third quarter, but hit just 2-9 threes – usually a scoring staple for them. They managed too few stops, and put Syracuse on the line for six points. When the Cyclones managed to close the gap by only one point in the period, any chance of a come back was done.
With a 20-point lead, Syracuse uncharacteristically but sensibly extended their offensive possessions. Iowa State cooperated with that strategy by allowing offensive rebounds, or fouling late in the shot clock. It was amusing to watch Syracuse point guard Alexis Peterson push the ball over half court, remember they were using clock, and pull back, almost in frustration.
Iowa State actually outscored Syracuse for the final three quarters, but not by nearly enough to overcome their 11 percent shooting in the first, or Cooper’s career day from beyond the arc. The freshman finished with a career-high 24 points, all of them from downtown (8-15).
Brittney Sykes led the Orange with 28 points, and Peterson had 25. Along with Cooper, the trio scores all but eight of their team’s points – something they are unlikely to do against the UConn defense. But on this day, it was more than enough to move on to a Monday date against them, which will be a rematch of last year’s National Championship.
Iowa State had four players in double figures, but shot just 38 percent as a team, and only 30 percent from three-point range. Coach Bill Fennelly said Syracuse didn’t play like an eighth seed.
“I’d like to see how they came up with that,” Fennelly said of the Selection Committee.
While the UConn-Syracuse rematch will be the story of the week around the country, the reality is that the No. 9 seed out-played Syracuse for 30 of 40 minutes today, while UConn scored 116 points in their win. Monday’s game will, obviously, be a hard-fought, physical game, because the Orange are that kind of team. They are also the kind of athletic group that could give the Huskies fits, in large part because their outstanding guards may be able to get them in foul trouble.
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman’s agreed that a win is possible, but he knows the upset will require a complete game.
“We need to get the ball in the basket so we can set up our pressure,” he said. “We need to progress through our sets and get the ball in the basket. If we can shoot forty percent & get into our pressure, that’s the key.”
“That’s who we are, we shoot the three & we press,” he continued. “We’ve got to scramble this game up and speed the game up and hit our shots.”
UConn knows this about Syracuse. They also know that the key to that team is still seniors Peterson and Sykes – not Cooper – no matter how hot her shooting. The Huskies have a much more active defense than Iowa State. And Syracuse has not beaten UConn since 1997. UConn has not lost a first or second round game since 1993. But Monday’s game should be fun.