As Florida State forward Natasha Howard rushed down the court and scored her 33rd and 34th points of the game, Quentin Hillsman stood crouched on the sideline with a frustrated expression – the same look he had for most of the night. That's because the result on the court was the same throughout the night. The Seminoles were able to dominate in the paint and Hillsman was left without any answers.
"She got the ball in the paint, scored, and did a very good job at playing at the rim," Hillsman said about Howard. "I have to give her a lot of credit."
Howard finished the game with a school-record 40 points and led the Seminoles to an 83-59 Seminole win in the first-ever matchup between these two programs. Syracuse hasn't allowed an opposing player to score 40 points, since UConn's Maya Moore did so in 2009. La'Shay Taft scored a season-high 18 points, but it wasn't enough for Syracuse (17-8), who was without point guards Rachel Coffey and Cornelia Fondren, due to illness.
Coming off a 37 point loss to No. 2 Notre Dame, the Orange needed to come out with a much better performance on Thursday night. But instead, the Orange treated the home fans to a dull and uninspiring display, one of the team's worst of the season. Syracuse struggled offensively and scored well below the season average of 75 points per game. The Seminoles, on the other hand, had no such trouble. They shot 54 percent in the game, thanks to a lethal duo of strong inside play and outside shooting.
The Orange jumped out to a temporary 9-2 lead to start the game. FSU countered with an impressive 16-2 run, featuring an array of shots by Howard in the paint. Of her team's first 22 points, Howard had 14 of them.
"She’s an unbelievable player," Hillsman said. "She’s had a great career at Florida State and will continue to have a great career at the next level."
From then on, the Orange never really threatened to reclaim the lead. It's partially due to Florida State's three point shooting (8-12), which always seemed to counter any Syracuse momentum. Offensively, Syracuse was at a considerable disadvantage without Coffey and Fondren at the point. After the game, Hillsman said he doesn't know whether the duo will be active on Sunday against Boston College.
"When you take two players out of your lineup who play major minutes, you’re going to struggle a little bit," Hillsman said. "But I give Alexis (Peterson) a lot of credit."
Peterson, a freshman from Ohio, made her first start and notched a career-high nine assists while only turning the ball over twice. Although only listed as 5-foot-6, Peterson also had a very strong defensive game. She held her opposing point guard – Yashira Delgado – to two points.
"I just felt like it was a normal game and I needed to come out and compete as hard as I can," she said. "Whether I was a starter or coming off the bench, I felt the same."
When Peterson was out of the game, Brianna Butler was largely responsible for bringing the ball up the court. She scored 10 points and surpassed Jaime James' school record for the most three pointers made in a season. Butler has 74 on the season, two more than James.
Brittney Sykes, the team's leading scorer, was held to six points. With the game out of reach, Sykes had to spend most of the second half on the bench as a spectator.
"It was real frustrating," she said. "But I have to put aside my frustrations and help my team on the bench. I have to just find something else to do if I’m not playing well. I have to be there for my team, more than just scoring."
Syracuse started the season 11-1 and even reached a program-high No. 20 ranking on Dec. 23. Since then, the Orange has gone 6-7, fallen out of the polls and needs to finish the final four regular season games strong to cement a good position in the NCAA tournament.
Said Hillsman: "We have a great opportunity to go out and win these last games. And we’re going to play hard. We’re going to get back tomorrow and figure things out."