Syracuse Stands Tall in Loss to West Virginia
By Christopher Sacchi
CitrusTV Women’s Basketball Beat Reporter
WINTER PARK, Fla. – The 2019 Florida Sunshine Classic was a great opportunity for Syracuse.
Going into the three-team tournament, matchups between No. 19 Michigan State (7-3, 0-0 Big 10) and No. 22 West Virginia (9-1, 0-0 Big 12) offered two chances for SU to defeat a ranked opponent for the first time this season. Factor in some Florida sunshine and warm weather, and this trip figured to be a good one.
After today’s matchup with West Virginia, Coach Quentin Hillsman has to be happy with his team’s performance. After knocking off Michigan State on Friday, Hillsman’s team entered today’s game against the No. 22 team in the country with a chance to win the tournament as an unranked program. Despite coming up just short in a 71-69 loss, SU (6-5, 0-0 Atlantic Coast) displayed quality resilience, late-game shot making and defensive acumen that can be taken as positives into conference play.
However, Hillsman and company did not start well. Syracuse trailed 20 to 6 after one quarter. They misfired on 15 of 17 shots and committed six turnovers. Kiara Lewis seemed to be the only one playing in rhythm, scoring four of those points and getting to the line twice. In a career game, the redshirt junior guard would continue to lead the way for the Orange to the tune of 32 points, and her offensive ability allowed Syracuse to claw back.
That poor play carried over into the second quarter. The Mountaineers finished a 17-0 that created a 25-6 advantage early. At this point, Coach Hillsman brought redshirt sophomore forward Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi back in, and she immediately became a focal point down low. After scoring a season high 16 against Michigan State, the French native added 8 timely points today, including a paint basket right after checking in. That layup and a two-point jumper by Lewis stopped the run for West Virginia and put the score at 25-10 with 7:33 left in the second.
At halftime, Syracuse pulled to within 12, 37-25, thanks to Lewis mounting 17 first half points and continued strong play down low for Djaldi-Tabdi and Amaya Finklea-Guity, who was the only other player who finished the game in double figures with 10 points. Two Lewis free throws capped off a 13-5 run for SU to draw within 8 points with just under two minutes to play in the half. Despite getting closer, Coach Hillsman and the Orange still had issues to sort out during the intermission, mainly not making a three-pointer in 16 shots. Hillsman received a technical foul late in the first quarter arguing a foul call, getting into the face of a referee and walking a good distance into the court.
With 7:09 left to play in the third, Lewis knocked in a three for her 22nd point and the first of the game on the Syracuse side. Freshman Guard Teisha Hyman also hit a three-point shot later in the quarter during some back and forth play, but the last 1:44 of the third belonged to the Orange. A 6-0 run made it a one-point game going into the final frame.
The run was highlighted by two offensive rebounds. First, sophomore Emily Englster (the ACC leader in rebounds per game with 11.4) grabbed a board that lead to an open three for senior Gabrille Cooper. Cooper missed, but junior Digna Strautmane hauled in another offensive board, feeding a cutting Cooper who connected for a layup amid contact. The Orange took the first lead of the day on another Amaya Finklea-Guity paint basket, and again on a Kiara Lewis pull-up jumper to give the team a 55-54 advantage with eight and a half remaining.
Mountaineers guard Ksyre Gondrezick, entering as the team’s leading scorer, continued to be a problem with the SU defense. She finished with 23 points and did a fantastic job filling the role of “closer” by scoring 11 in the fourth period.
With under three minutes to play, Gabrielle Cooper, who is the lone remaining layer from the 2016 team that made it to the NCAA title game, stood at the line with her team trailing 66-62, the largest margin of the fourth. Despite a tough shooting night (1-11 overall, 0-10 from three) Cooper nailed both to keep it a one possession game.
Also coming up huge was Strautmane, converting on an open three at the top of the arc to cut the WVU lead to 68-67 with 1:38 left. With all of the attention to Finklea-Guity, Djaldi-Tabdi and Lewis, Strautmane had a chance to set her feet and find the bottom of the net.
Lewis capped off her career day by making a tough driving layup at the end of the shot clock to give her team a 69-68 lead with just 0:44 to play. The play was reviewed by the officiating crew, only added to the theatrics of the game. However, the basket was upheld, as was the slim lead.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, that was the team’s last points of the game. While playing the full court press, Gabrille Cooper fouled Mountaineer guard Tynice Martin in the backcourt, a mistake that made Coach Hillsman visibly upset on the sideline. Martin, who scored seven of her 24 points in the fourth, converted two free throws to give West Virginia a 70-69 lead with 0:35 to play.
On the subsequent offense possession, down by one, the Orange fed none other than Lewis. She surveyed the floor and drove the rim with about 6 seconds on the shot clock. Just when she began her drive, the referee behind the basket blew the whistle, signaling Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi for an offensive three second violation. Just like Cooper’s foul, this mistake was a crucial late-game outcome that allowed West Virginia a better shot at winning the game.
Syracuse fouled Gondrezick after the turnover with 7 seconds to play. After making the first and missing the second shot, Emily Englster secured the rebound, down 71-69. Without a timeout, she was forced to put up a contested three pointer that fell just short of the rim.
In a fierce battle with a ranked opponent and a chance to win the Florida Sunshine Classic, Syracuse fell just short to West Virginia, 71-69. The fourth quarter featured five lead changes and neither team lead by more than four points. Despite the loss, this was a resilient performance from a team that looked down and out after the first period. Conference play for the Orange begins with a matchup at Louisville on December 29th at 2:00.