Syracuse Women’s Basketball NCAA Tournament Preview
By James Corrigan
CitrusTV’s Women’s Basketball Beat Reporter
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Syracuse has changed a lot since its loss to South Dakota State in the second round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. The Orange saw their best player be diagnosed with and beat breast cancer, a top 5 recruiting class come to Syracuse, and a global pandemic wreak havoc on the sports world and cause the team to not play for nearly four whole weeks. And after all this, the Orange finds themselves right back in the NCAA tournament to face… the Jackrabbits once again.
“Obviously, South Dakota State we know they’re a very good program,” head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “We have history with them, and they’re a very good team. We just know it’s gonna be a tough game. And we’re excited to play tough competition in this in this tournament, and we got to go back and get the work.”
The Orange earned the eighth seed in the River Walk Region Monday night, with the winner between SU and the ninth-seeded Jackrabbits on Sunday at 5:30 almost certain to face top seed UConn in round two. Revenge will surely be on the mind of Syracuse in San Antonio, and they could be in a position to exact it.
JUDGING THE JACKRABBITS
The Jackrabbits have been to the NCAA tournament nine of the last 11 times it was held and have won four times. That includes its Sweet 16 run at Syracuse’s expense in 2019. This year, Aaron Johnston’s team picked up right where they left off, scoring early season wins over Iowa State, Missouri State, and Gonzaga. Those teams netted seven, five, and five seeds respectively in this year’s tournament. They rolled through their Summit League season going a perfect 14-0 and reached as high as No. 21 in the AP poll. This was on the back of redshirt junior Myah Selland. The forward led the Summit League with 19.2 points per game while finishing in the top five in shooting percentage (51.5%), assists per game (3.8), and rebounds per game (6.8). That got her conference player of the year honors.
Things were going swimmingly for the Jackrabbits until February 19, when Selland went down with a knee injury which was described as a likely season-ending injury by Johnston. The team still won its last 3 league games without her but lost in the first round of the conference tournament to 8 seed Omaha. They do boast First-Team All-Summit performers in Paiton Burckhard and Tylee Irwin, so there is depth on this team. With that said, the Jack Rabbits face an even more difficult challenge in Syracuse if they have to play without their star.
As for their tournament resume, SDSU comes in at 21-3 with a NET ranking of 46. They are 2-0 against the NET top 25 (not including a win over #26 Iowa St.), 4-0 against 26-50, 2-1 against 51-100, and 13-2 against 100+. Their loss to #212 Omaha could very well have dropped them at least one seed line, if not more.
It all seemed to be going well for Syracuse in the second round of the 2019 NCAA tournament at the Dome. Coach Q’s side led SDSU by three with just under five minutes to play. SU previously led by as many as 12 in the second quarter. The Orange then proceeded to miss its next eight shots and allow the Jackrabbits to end the game on a 13-2 run and move on to the Sweet 16 on Syracuse’s home floor.
Tiana Mangakahia led the way with 18 points and 8 assists in what would be her last game for 18 months. It’s a defeat that continues to drive her.
“When I saw South Dakota State, I was like, ‘yes,’ Tiana said. “I was super, you know, motivated, pumped. Because I feel like we should have won two years ago. But it’s a completely different team. And I know it’s different this year.”
THE UCONN QUESTION
Syracuse cannot overlook what looms in the second round. UConn earned its 14th straight #1 seed, and assuming the Huskies dispatch High Point in the first round, they await the winner between Syracuse and South Dakota State. A matchup with UConn serves as a rematch of the 2016 National Final, when Syracuse native Breanna Stewart dispatched the Orange to win her fourth straight title and Final Four Outstanding Player award.
That is, of course, if the Huskies get to San Antonio. It was reported right before the selection show that legendary head coach Geno Auriemma tested positive for COVID and would miss the first round at the least. While Auriemma is insistent that he was the only one affected and all indications at the moment are that this is the case, there will surely be anxious moments in testing over the next several days. Assuming the Huskies do play, whoever wins between Syracuse and South Dakota State will have to deal with Paige Bueckers, arguably the nation’s premier player as a freshman.
Syracuse must travel this road if they are to make a run in March. A win over the Jackrabbits would bring Tiana’s career and come back full circle and would give the Orange the ultimate spotlight against the sport’s most high-profile program. After two long years, it’s time for the Orange to go dancing again.
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