A Look Back at the 2019-20 Syracuse Women’s Basketball Season

Saturday, Mar 14, 2020 at 12:21 pm by Sports Editor

On August 1st, 2019, the world of basketball was hit with shocking news. Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia announced she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

“This is devastating news for Tiana and our entire Syracuse family,” SU head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “I am heartbroken. Tiana is a tough lady. She will have the complete support of everyone associated with our program as she goes through her treatment. Tiana is a grinder and I know she won’t back down from this challenge.”

The diagnosis meant that the star point guard would miss all of 2019-2020, leaving Hillsman and his team to adjust ahead of its toughest schedule in years. A change in league scheduling meant top programs like Louisville and Notre Dame showed up twice on the docket instead of just once, while No. 1 Oregon and No. 3 Stanford headlined five ranked opponents in non-conference play.

SU was ranked in the Top 10 to start 2019, coming off that loss to No. 1 UConn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. However, after the Tiana news, SU fell out of the top 10.

“It’s insulting. It really is. We’ve worked hard to get this program to a level,” Hillsman said on ACC Media day in October. “We started the season top-10 in the country. You look at the rankings and you’re out. They’re going to find out very soon that we have a very good basketball team. A lot of people have these wrong rankings. I don’t know what to tell you.”

Who Stepped Up in Tiana’s Absence?

Much of Coach Q’s confidence came from Kiara Lewis, who stepped in for Mangakahia in the starting lineup. Lewis lived Mangakahia’s shadow last season in her first year playing at SU after a transfer from Ohio State. Thus, she relished the opportunity to take over the reins as the team’s point guard and primary ball handler.

Lewis blossomed into an ACC First Team member, increasing her scoring from 8.4 to 17.9 points per game, playing over 1,000 minutes, and successfully operating the offense in crunch time in tight wins over No. 8 Florida State, Notre Dame and No. 5 Louisville.

Other players had to shoulder larger loads as well. Gabrielle Cooper, the lone senior on the team, provided great leadership and defense all season long, while also averaging over 5 rebounds per game as a guard. She would have liked to improve upon her shooting percentages both overall and from downtown, as both figures sit below a career-low 30% for the season

Sophomore Emily Engstler averaged the second most points on the team at 9.0, adding 9.2 rebounds. As the highest-ever recruit for this program, Engstler was a do-it-all forward: Matching-up with any player on defense, Scoring from any area on the court, Finding teammates as an adept passer, and Solidifying herself as one of the best rebounders in the ACC.

Nevertheless, there was a lack of offensive diversity in Mangakahia’s absence as Lewis shoulder the majority of the burden, scoring 267 more points than her next closest team in Engstler. Despite Lewis’s fantastic season, the team was not the same without Mangakahia in how many players were not afforded as many open shots on offense, and the efficiency numbers show just that.

Average Season, or Inconsistent?

Finishing at 16-15 overall and 9-9 in conference gives the looks of an average team. But, this 2019-20 SU team was capable of defeating any team in the country when Coach Hillsman’s system was at its best.

Coach Q’s system is a significant reason the team had such a feast-or-famine year.  “Make shots and get into our pressure” has to be one of the most spoken phrases in a Hillsman postgame speech. A win usually means the team did so while a loss means the team either shot poorly or the full court press wasn’t working.

The potential of the press is immense since causing turnovers leads to great fastbreak offensive opportunities. Convert on those easier chances, and you are back at the ideal step one: forcing pressure on an opponent inbound. Thus, cycling such plays together in succession makes Q’s system very hard to beat.

Case in point, the team forced over 20 turnovers per-game and over 70 points a game during the Orange’s five-game win streak in February. The win over No. 5 Louisville in this steak featured 22 Cardinal turnovers en route to just 51 points, a season low.

Yet, the system didn’t work in games like the 30-point loss to Duke because the offense was not firing. Despite forcing 18 Blue Devil turnovers, SU shot just above 32%, turned the ball over 22 times, and allowed Duke to run up and down the floor.

The combinations of wins over top teams like Notre Dame and Florida with horrendous losses like Duke illustrates what was frankly an up-and-down season for the Orange. How the Orange rallied together a five-game win streak after scoring a season-low 41 points in a head-scratcher loss at UVA demonstrates the inconsistency Coach Q and company experienced this year.

Overall Outlook

After seven-straight seasons making the NCAA Tournament, this team would have been looking at the WNIT before Coronavirus concerns halted both tournaments. This team still had enough talent and coaching acumen to garner big wins and put together a significant win streak, but in the end, a 71-46 loss to Louisville in the ACC Tournament put the exclamation point on a season that, by Hillsman’s standards, is disappointing.

Heading into next season, Mangakahia is set to return after announcing she was cancer-free in November and cleared for practice in February 2020. She will play along with a superb recruiting class. Center Kamilla Cordisco was named to the WBCA High School Coaches’ All-American Team, and fellow signee Priscilla Williams received an All-America honorable mention. These two are part of head coach Quentin Hillsman’s 2020 signing class that ranked fourth nationwide.

Engstler is also set to return with starting center Amaya Finklea, backup center Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, freshman guards Taleah Washington and Tesiha Hyman, among others. Expectation will be high for the Syracuse Women’s Basketball team in 2020-21.

cjsacchi@syr.edu | @SachChristopher