WBB: Coffey Break - Point Guard Play Leads Orange in Victory Over Virginia

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, the Syracuse Orange (15-5, 4-3 ACC) went on an 18-0 run to secure a victory. This time, the opponent was Virginia.

Normally relegated to the role of the sidekick, Rachel Coffey played a starring role in the 84-75 win by the Syracuse Orange over the Virginia Cavaliers in the Carrier Dome.

Coffey is the prototypical pass-first point guard.  She's one of the conference leaders in assists per game, but not much of an offensive threat.  Against the Cavs, the senior from Kingston, N.Y. scored 17 points and had six assists to only one turnover.

"She took open shots. And she took good ones," Quentin Hillsman said.  "Anytime we get the ball and reverse it back to her at the top, she can step up and knock that shot down, that’s it. We’re going to continue to get her that shot. That’s her spot."

She scored a three-pointer on Syracuse's opening possession and never slowed down.

"The first shot of the game kind of got me going," Coffey said.  "So I had in my head, keep shooting."

And with about a minute left in the game, it was Coffey again with a big play.  She threw a baseball-style, in-bounds pass the length of the court to Brittney Sykes, who scored to seal the deal.  Sykes led the Orange with a career-high 27 points.  But it was Coffey's confident and steady play at the point that turned the tide in the second half.  She stabilized the Orange late in the game after a rather chaotic start.

Early on, the Orange showed some sloppy play that Coach Q is unaccustomed to seeing. Syracuse leads the ACC in turnover margin, but you couldn't tell by watching the beginning of the game.  By the 15:08 mark, the Orange had four turnovers, leading to seven Virginia points.  Too often, they forced passes in openings that just weren't there.  The turnovers combined with Virginia's outside shooting, started sinking the Orange.  SU fell behind, 24-13.

The Orange made a few mini-runs midway in the half, but each time Virginia had an answer.  The Cavs were very successful at using ball fakes to create open shots in the offensive end.  Several times, they got the ball to Sarah Imovbioh in front of the basket, in the soft spot of the zone.  Just as frequently, it was Syracuse who slowed its own momentum.  With the Cavalier lead down to five with 3:53 left in the half, Brianna Butler dribbled the ball off Alexis Peterson's foot and out of bounds.

But, the Orange used an 11-0 streak to close the first half and finally go back ahead.  Coffey hit a three with 52 seconds left to give her team its first lead since being up 6-4.  And she wasn't done.  She dribbled the ball back-and-forth at the top of the key, looking to create space from her defender.  She realized that time was running out and hoisted a shot from four feet behind the arc.  Coffey's buzzer-beater three-pointer went in, just as it did to start the game.

"It was a lot of luck. I’m not going to lie," Coffey said. "It was very big. I didn’t expect it to go in."

The Orange was lucky to go into halftime leading by four.  Syracuse had 16 turnovers to Virginia's nine.  Coffey played 14 of 20 minutes in the second half and the results showed. In the latter half, the Orange had 14 assists to just four turnovers.

"It was just a tale of two halves with our aggressiveness and our intensity," Hillsman said. "We knew we had to come out in the second half and take care of the ball and rebound."

At the onset of the half, Syracuse picked up where it left off.  The Orange scored the first seven points.  It completed an 18-0 run, spanning exactly three minutes of playing time over the course of two halves. A few minutes later, Syracuse expanded its lead to 14 points, its largest of the game.  And seemingly just as fast as the Orange built that lead, it slipped away.

Syracuse needed a response midway through the half and it got one, this time from the sophomore combo of Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes.  Butler had 12 assists and did a good job at locating Sykes, particularly in transition.  Butler found Sykes, who was cutting in from the right baseline and scored to go up 63-61. On the very next play, Butler stole the ball and passed to Sykes, who scored on a breakaway.

"I’m a shooter and Brittney is a driver," Butler said. "So they either have to step out and take me for a shot or guard Brittney for a drive."

So often, Hillsman will point to the combined scoring of Butler and Sykes.  On Sunday, they had 43 points.  The Orange needed all 43 to beat the Cavs.

To close the game it was Sykes, Sykes and more Sykes. She dominated all aspects of the game and scored from all angles inside-the-arc.  Sykes had 18 points in the second half and tends to do her best work this season after intermission.

"The second half is when you figure out what you did wrong in the first half and then you critique it and fix it," she said.  "That’s how you build on what you learn."

Sykes played so well that even her harshest critic was happy to give out praise.

"Today was about Brittney Sykes’ willingness to win.  And I was really happy for her," Hillsman said.

Then he joked, "Because I blame her for every loss and take the credit for all the wins."

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