On paper, Creighton seemed to be a good draw for the Orange. Ranked No. 22 in both polls, Syracuse was certainly deserving of its 7-seed. Creighton was a ten-seed, one spot higher than ESPN's Charlie Creme predicted. The Bluejays lived and died by the three all year, and the Orange led the Big East in 3-point field goal percentage defense at 27.3.
But Syracuse could not have anticipated the shooting display by McKenzie Fujan. Fujan scored 17 of her team's 24 first-half points on 6-7 shooting, including five three-pointers.
The Syracuse Orange lost 61-56 to the Creighton Bluejays in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. Kayla Alexander led SU with 23 points and did all she could do in the second half, but the Bluejays were able to hit enough threes to keep the game out of reach for the Orange. Fujan finished with a career-high 24 points to go along with five rebounds. Creighton made 11 three-pointers on 36 attempts.
"We knew coming into this game we had to guard the three point line," coach Quentin Hillsman said. "If they make nine threes, I think it's a different ball game...six points less."
For Syracuse's seniors (Alexander, Carmen Tyson-Thomas, and Elashier Hall), there is disappointment in not being able to win the first NCAA game in school history.
"Right now, I'm kind of in shock," Alexander said. "This isn't the way we thought or planned or imagined this would end. We had such high expectations for ourselves and this isn't how we expected to finish."
Even with Fujan's performance and SU's poor shooting output to start the game, Syracuse was tied 24-24 with Creighton at the half. Besides Fujan, the Jays were 2-23 from the field in the first half, including many ill-advised long distance shots. For SU, Alexander only scored six points by halftime. Early on after the break, Carli Tritz's layup capped a 7-0 Creighton run to put the Jays up 33-26. After a Syracuse timeout, the Orange seemed more focused on getting the ball to Alexander, the team's leading scorer. Rachel Coffey passed inside to Alexander, who hit a short jumper. The Jays were called for a traveling violation and Alexander scored, was fouled, and hit her free throw, on the ensuing possession.
Shortly after, Creighton's Alyssa Kamphous picked up her fourth foul while guarding a mid-range jump shot by Alexander. SU's senior center hit both free throws and the game was, once again, tied.
But Syracuse had three consecutive defensive breakdowns and the Jays were able to regain a six point lead almost immediately. Sarah Nelson scored two easy lay ups during the 6-0 run. Creighton's early offense was predicated on long threes, but the Jays developed a more efficient inside game later on. Nelson, a 6-foot forward scored 14 of her 17 points in the second half.
Another late Bluejays run put them up 47-37, their largest lead of the game. But Alexander had another counter punch. She scored back-to-back and-one plays and SU was only down 49-43. However, after two Sarah Nelson threes, (at the 6:24 and 4:52 mark) Creighton had a comfortable ten point lead with under five minutes to play.
Coach Quentin Hillsman called timeout and decided to go to man-to-man defense, rather than Syracuse's typical 2-3 zone. The move almost killed Creighton.
Coffey hit a lay up off the timeout and CTT hit a three off a Creighton turnover. Sykes then stole the ball and found Alexander, who hit a turn around bank shot with 2:39 to go. Creighton had not won a tournament game in 19 years and the Jays looked ready to collapse.
Alexander had chances to make short lay-ins on back-to-back possession to make it a one point game, but surprisingly she missed both. Creighton's Carli Tritz turned the ball over with 34 seconds left and the Orange had one last chance, down three. CTT decided to drive to the lane, and scored a quick two with 18 seconds left. Fujan was immediately fouled off the in-bounds play, but she hit both free throws. Hall missed one last chance at a game-tying three with three seconds left and the Jays finally sealed the victory.
"Basketball is a game of runs," CTT said. "It's just what team is going to make the tougher run. When it got down to the last couple of minutes, I felt that we did what we were supposed to do."
CTT scored 13 points and was the only other Syracuse player besides Alexander with double-digits in scoring. Hall scored seven points and had two steals in her final game at SU.
After the game, Hillsman said he felt very bad for his players, who worked hard all season.
"Never have I coached a tougher group of kids," Hillsman said. "They deserved to win this basketball game. They work as hard as any group in the country."
Although Syracuse did not get its first NCAA tournament win, it was still a historic season for the Orange. SU broke a team record with the most wins through 31 games (24) and set new highs for best rankings in both polls (No. 21 in the AP, No 18 in the Coaches Poll).
"I can't even express the amount of love I have for my players," Hillsman said. "I really wanted this game more for them than myself."