Hillsman grew up in Suitland, Md. and went to college at St. Mary's. This week, he looked forward to a trip back to his native state and the opportunity to play another top-ten team. He thought that if the Orange executed well, his team could hang with the highly-regarded Terrapins.
And for certain stretches, they did -- the second half was very evenly played. But now, Syracuse is left to wonder what would have happened if the whole game played out like the second half. If a moral victory could have been an actual victory. The Orange squandered an opportunity for a program-changing night in a game they could have won. Syracuse turned the ball over 21 times, many of which caused its demise early in the game.
The Orange jumped out to an early lead because of the outside shooting of Brianna Butler, the inside play of Shakeya Leary and good play on the defensive end. The Terrapins looked utterly confused initially, in their first look of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. After five minutes, Maryland had just one field goal.
But midway through the half, the Terrapins suddenly learned how to execute against the zone. And the Orange suddenly learned about Alyssa Thomas, one of the ACC's leading scorers. Thomas scored a game-high 19 points. She was the focal point of a long scoring run that completely demoralized the Orange.
The Terps outscored the Orange, 30-7, kickstarted by a pair of jumpers by Thomas. They did a good job at drawing Syracuse's centers away from the basket. Several times, Maryland was able to cut to the lane through the corner and make easy layups. This positioning also made the Orange susceptible to getting beat on the glass. The Terps tallied 19 offensive boards and had a +7 overall rebounding margin. They also had an overwhelming 44 points in the paint.
(On a lighter note: If you think the ACC Network announcers only make fools of themselves during SU men's basketball games, think again. At one point, former Syracuse player Kayla "Anderson" was mentioned. That's not her name. )
On Thursday, it was Maryland -- not Syracuse -- who relied on forcing turnovers and scoring off of them. Even if the Terps weren't driving for layups, their transition offense gave way to several open jump shots.
They added a pair of field goals to open the second half, which built on the 14-point intermission lead. It looked like the second half would be just more of the same. But to their credit, the Orange didn't quit. La'Shay Taft and Rachel Coffey hit a pair of threes, cutting the deficit to ten points.
Maryland built the lead to, at one point, 22. Again, the Orange stormed back and trimmed the lead in half, thanks to the play of freshman guard Alexis Peterson. She played well again after a breakout performance versus Georgia Tech on Sunday. Against Maryland, Peterson scored ten points during a five-minute stretch late in the game. She scored 12 points in total on 5-8 shooting, despite splitting playing time with Coffey and Cornelia Fondren On Wednesday, I asked Hillsman if he planned on using Peterson more, in light of her recent performance. He replied by saying the play of that trio would ultimately dictate who gets minutes. Right now, Peterson is making that decision for him.
The Orange offense played relatively well, shooting 42 percent from the field. Brianna Butler led Syracuse with 14 points, followed by Peterson (12), Brittney Sykes (nine) and Coffey (eight).
Last week, Sykes talked about how it takes a full 40 minutes to win games in the ACC. Indeed, it may be a few early minutes in the game that will keep Hillsman and his team up for hours, wondering about what could have been. Despite struggling thus far in ACC play, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Syracuse. Up next is Pittsburgh, a past doormat of the Big East.