The Syracuse bench was just waiting for the moment to burst out in enthusiasm. Every time the Orange were on the verge of a game-changing play, something didn't connect. A missed layup. A fast-break halted by a turnover. A sloppy pass.
And then it happened.
Lacie Hall curled around a screen, drew a foul near the basket, and made a layup. The bench mob erupted and the crowd cheered louder than at any point in the night. Hall's free throw capped an 11-0 Syracuse run to put SU up 38-27. They would go on to win the game 58-45 and deny Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer the chance to win her 900th game.
"(Support from the bench) picks up our energy," guard Brianna Butler said. "Even though we might not be playing that well, them cheering us on and still having faith in us makes us play even harder."
Despite the final score, the game did not start well for the Syracuse Orange. Stringer has been tense, even abrasive, in the buildup to the milestone, but it was the Orange who came out tight. One line and one outburst summed up the frustrating first half for the Syracuse Orange.
"CARMEN, dammit," Coach Quentin Hillsman yelled out.
The Scarlet Knights were patiently moving the ball around the court, waiting for the right shot. Syessence Davis passed to Erica Wheeler at the left wing and Carmen Tyson-Thomas was late to recover and defend the shot. Wheeler hit a three to put Rutgers up 15-13.
It also put Tyson-Thomas back on the bench.
Kayla Alexander was sitting nearby. Alexander picked up her second foul just over five minutes into the game and didn't return until the second half began. Without Syracuse's best player for the rest of the half, the team really struggled. Alexander's replacement, Shakeya Leary, shot 0-for-6 and was hot and cold on defense. After 6-foot-3 Leary decided to try to block a mid-range jumper, the backup center was nowhere to be found on the rebound. 5-foot-11 guard Hall had to take a foul just to prevent an easy basket.
The Orange started the game with a turnover and a traveling violation and the sloppiness seemed to snowball. Syracuse came into the game with an impressive +5.2 turnover margin per game. But in the first half, SU turned the ball over 14 times and only shot 30 percent. At the half, Syracuse trailed 19-15 and Hillsman was not happy.
"At halftime in the locker room, I just went down the rope on each player and I told them, 'You're not doing this, you're not doing that. It's up to you'," he said after the game.
The Orange picked up the tempo in the second half and the shots started falling. Cornelia Fondren scored first for Syracuse. She stole the ball from Shakena Richardson, drove the length of the court to the basket, scored, and was fouled.
Shortly after Syracuse's 11-0 run, Brianna Butler hit a three to push the lead back to ten. Two minutes later, she hit another shot from deep.
But with four minutes to play, the Orange still had a single digit lead and had not put the game away. Following the media timeout, Rachel Coffey made threes on back-to-back possessions to give SU a comfortable lead. Coffey scored a team-high 17 points and grabbed three rebounds.
Syracuse won despite its best player only scoring seven points. Alexander only played five first half minutes and all seven points came after halftime.
"Our bench is deep so any other person can step up and play," she said. "It is frustrating to watch from the bench, but I’ll cheer on my teammates just as much too."
Rutgers is now 0-3 since Stringer reached her 899th win.
"I want her to get it (900 wins)...but I want to win too," Hillsman said. He complimented Stringer's huge impact on women's basketball, but admitted he has a very different style.
"You're coaching the game and the game is close and you look down and she's just sitting on the bench," Hillsman said about her calm demeanor. "I don't know how she's doing this because I'm ready to explode."
Syracuse is now a perfect 12-0 at home.