When the most exciting part of Syracuse's win on Sunday was the pre-game Senior Day Celebration, you know something is going right. This season, the Orange has played ten games decided by ten points or less. This wasn't one of them. For a change, Quentin Hillsman and his heart rate got a rest.
"We got to give our kids a lot of credit," Hillsman said. "They really competed at a high level tonight. And I’m very happy to just come out with this win."
In Syracuse's final home game of the season, the team honored its four seniors: Rachel Coffey, Shakeya Leary, La'Shay Taft and Phylesha Bullard. Those four have been part of some of the best years in program history. They now have a 91-41 record, trailing only last year's seniors for the most wins by a class (96).
"They were just a tremendous class," Hillsman said. "Every year that they’ve been here, it’s been a 20-win season. It’s our fifth 20-win season, so these seniors only know winning."
When the game started, Syracuse honored the seniors by absolutely throttling the Panthers, a fitting finale to four dominating years in the Carrier Dome. The Orange had, perhaps, its best defensive performance of the entire season. At the half, Pittsburgh had just 11 points. In fact, the Panthers didn't make their first field goal until the 1:26 mark of the first half. That's right – they went over 18 minutes of game time without making a basket. Pittsburgh started the game 0-21 before finally hitting a three just before intermission.
"We got really good scouting on them from the first game," Hillsman said. "When you’re playing zone and you play them the same way you played them the first time, they’re probably going to do a lot of the same things."
Brittney Sykes has been the scoring leader for Syracuse this season, but it was her defense that made a loud statement. Sykes gave a thumping block on a shot by Loliya Briggs with 3:36 remaining in the first half. In the second half, she did it again – Sykes had a block at the 10:08 mark, which set up a Coffey three from the top of key a few seconds later.
"It brought me back to high school when I used to block shots," Sykes said. "Not getting the foul called made me really happy."
Coffey's three tied her for seventh on the all-time three pointers list in SU history. Leary also moved up in the record books. She played in the 130th game of her career, tied for fifth. Of the four seniors, Leary and Taft scored the most points with seven apiece.
With the game well out of reach, Hillsman got the chance to take out his starters with about two minutes left. That includes Coffey and Leary, who received a nice ovation. The other two seniors stayed in the game a little longer and made the most of their final opportunity on Jim Boeheim Court. Bullard swished a long two and, a few plays later, Taft hit another three with 2:02 remaining in the game. It couldn't have been scripted any better for Coach Q.
"Phy (Bullard) made her pull up jumper and Shay (Taft) made her three and that’s what they are," he said. "Shay’s a shooter and Phy’s a very good mid-range shooter. So they really fell into what they do for their last bucket on this home court."
Although none of the seniors reached the 1,000 point milestone, the class is admirable for its unselfishness. Coffey has gone back-and-forth between starter and reserve. Leary sat behind star center Kayla Alexander for the past few years, before finally get her shot this season. They all accepted their roles within the team, something Hillsman admitted he wouldn't have been able to do himself.
"(Leary) just sat and waited. She didn’t complain, not one time," he said. "Last year, Rachel came off the bench because we really needed her in that role to get some power off the bench. She didn’t complain once."
The team presented the seniors with plaques of their jerseys before the game, while their families stood nearby on center court. The day may have been even sweeter by seeing the box score after the game. The leading scorers for Syracuse were sophomores Brianna Butler (16) and Sykes (10) and freshman Briana Day (14). Coffey walked off the home floor one last time, knowing her team will be in good hands.
Said Coffey, "Seeing them as sophomores and freshman just opens it up for the future and how good that they’re going to be. They have a bright future."