Women’s Weekly Wrap: Good Teams Win Ugly

2021 Syracuse Women's Basketball @ Miami
Friday, Dec 11, 2020 at 2:25 pm by Sports Editor

By James Corrigan

CitrusTV’s Women’s Basketball Beat Reporter 

Picture a two-game stretch for a team where they shoot a combined 13-55 from 3, turn the ball over a combined 38 times including 18 from their star point guard, shoot only 60% from the line, and shoot 30% or less in four of the eight quarters. That might be considered a cause for concern.

That is, until you look at the results of the two games: Two double digit wins overpower 5 opponents, including an ACC road win over a team that won by 15 in the same building a season ago.

This is the scenario the 4-0 and 20th ranked Syracuse Orange face as they try to round into form following an abbreviated offseason. The team’s talent and depth are on display every time they take the floor, but for Quentin Hillsman’s team, guts and toughness have become the key reasons for their success.

“The mark of a good team is to win the ugly games,” Hillsman said following his team’s 82-72 win over Penn State on Sunday. “Anybody can go and get thirty and be a front runner and win those games. But can you win the grimy ugly games when teams aren’t scoring, you turn the ball over here and there, they’re making shots, how do you win those games? You win those games by having a tough team and a good basketball team.”

Defense has carried the day for the Orange more times than not this year. They have held opponents to 27.5% shooting, including holding Miami to just 29% last night in a 69-58 win in Coral Gables. Freshman Kamilla Cardoso leads the ACC in blocks despite playing limited minutes due to foul trouble. And the Orange lead the ACC in turnovers forced at nearly 24 per game, including a league leading 12 steals per game.

The performance of Tiana Mangakahia coming off her year long layoff was always going to be a focal point. While her return has brought unmatched positivity and inspiration surrounding the team, on the court, her play this week has been uneven. In the second half against Miami, she was her old self, scoring 14 points, dishing 4 assists, and recording 3 steals. She penetrated to the basket and found the open player more often than not and was the driving force behind the win in the end. This came, however, after an abysmal first half with no points and six turnovers in just seven minutes. While the presence of Cardoso down low is an enticing option, too often Tiana tried to force the ball to her, leading to steals. She also attempted unnecessary full court passes, leading to multiple turnovers. This prompted Debbie Antonelli of the ACC Network to say on the broadcast that Mangakahia needs to try and hit more “singles” rather than go for “home runs.”

Her value to the team, though, is impossible to duplicate, and the fix she must make isn’t a difficult one, as it involves doing less rather than more. She must let the game come to her, and to defer to her teammates at times, all of whom have proven to be very capable options. Emily Engstler was strong off the bench in Miami, scoring 7 points, adding 9 rebounds, and helping to space the floor with her shooting ability. Digna Strautmane appears to have stepped up her production, following up a 14-point outing against Penn State with 9 points and 11 rebounds in Miami. Freshman Priscilla Williams displayed a beautiful shooting stroke last night, knocking down two triples. Amaya Finklea has been a calming veteran presence on the court, displaying nice pick and roll chemistry with Tiana and solid defense. And of course, there’s Cardoso, who, while on the floor, is unstoppable down low, and whose best defender at this point is herself.

Kiara Lewis struggled against Miami with just 7 points on 3-18 shooting, following a 26-point outburst against Penn State on Sunday. Most of her shots have not been bad ones, largely coming off drives to the basket. She too is adjusting to life playing with Tiana, but if the ball starts to drop for her, that would be a dangerous proposition for the rest of the ACC.

A Sunday night matchup with Binghamton gives the Orange an opportunity to work out their kinks before going back on the road in ACC play to battle North Carolina on Thursday. For now, though, the Orange continue to find ways to win through their defense and timely offense, and in a year where any time on the court is a luxury, the result is the only thing that matters.

jucorrig@syr.edu | @RealCorrigan