For Brittney Sykes, the superstar of the Syracuse women’s basketball team, her friendship with point guard Cornelia Fondren doesn’t end when the two sophomores step off the basketball court. Sykes, the sharp city girl from Newark is living with Fondren, the sweet-talking southerner from Tennessee. It may seem like an odd pairing, but it’s a match they say works well.
"It’s kind of funny. She’s a goofball," Fondren said. "But sometimes, I’m a goofball. So I think it’s good that we live together."
Fondren and Sykes are rooming together in a South Campus apartment, like the other players on the team. After two seasons at Syracuse, the pair knows each other’s quirks as basketball players and as people. Brittney makes sure to buy Cornelia’s favorite juice when she’s at the supermarket. Cornelia makes Brittney her favorite dip.
Both say they had a feeling before coming to Syracuse that they would end up being roommates. But both admit that it was a little strange when they finally met in person for the first time.
"Coach Kelley (Gibson) had told me about her and said she was really nice," Fondren said. "But when I first met her, I thought this might be a little weird."
"When I first met her, it was kind of weird," Sykes said. "I thought she was really mean and really quiet."
"But then after that, we just talked for the whole time because we didn’t have TVs in our room yet. Freshman year, we just got really close," Sykes said.
The results have shown. The Orange (22-9) has a good chance of winning its first NCAA Tournament game in team history. Syracuse is projected to be a seven seed and will find out its fate on Monday at 7 p.m. Sykes has been the scoring leader during the team's transition to the ACC. Fondren has been part of a potent point guard trio that led the conference in turnover margin.
Basketball provided the initial icebreaker for the roommates and they quickly bonded. Living with a teammate meant that Sykes and Fondren would have a first friend as a freshman in college. They would understand what each other was going through because they had the same experiences.
"You eliminate the awkward phase when you don’t know if you can come to that person and actually talk to them," Sykes said. "When you’re so comfortable with them, you’re able to tell them and ask them things that you normally wouldn’t ask a stranger."
Senior point guard Rachel Coffey lives with guard Tiara Butler and two non-athletes in a University Village apartment. Coffey agreed that this system has its advantages.
"When you’re traveling, you’re both getting home at 1 a.m. in the morning, so it actually works a lot. They understand where you’re coming from."
Even for players who aren't roommates, the rest of the team is just a quick bus ride away. It not only creates camaraderie, but can help from a basketball standpoint. Last year, Carmen Tyson-Thomas unselfishly accepted a role coming off the bench in her senior season. This year, Coffey, Fondren and Alexis Peterson have co-existed in a competitive rotation at point guard. The team matters more than the individual, they all claim.
"It’s good for us," Brianna Butler said. "We have good chemistry and we build bonds with each other. I think that’s something you could see on the court and off the court."
Butler lives with fellow sophomore, Taylor Ford. Butler said she likes the experience living together and thinks they’ve grown as people over the past two years.
"She’s the opposite of me," Butler said. "She’s the more crazy one and I’m the more silent one so I think it shows a good contrast in us. It works out well for us."
Butler and Ford have been part of a sophomore takeover of the Syracuse team, which looks to be set for the next two years. At one point this season, Butler led the nation in three pointers made. Ford has given the Orange a spark off the bench.
Before Butler’s senior year of high school, she left the Philadelphia area – where she grew up – and joined Ford at Nazareth Regional High School in Brooklyn.
"I’ve known Bri for a couple of year so it’s comfortable," Ford said. "She’s funny. We’re like sisters so it makes it easier."
There are, of course, actual sisters on the team who are rooming together. That would be the freshman duo of Bria and Briana Day. The Days say they are very close off-the-court so there was never a chance that they would split up in college. Perhaps, because this bond has been in place for several years, they don’t try to sugarcoat anything.
"She’s a little messy," Bria Day joked. "I keep my side of the room clean. It’s not spectacular, but it’s tidy. And sometimes she’ll come in and just put her stuff right in the living area. It’s like – take your stuff upstairs, Briana."
"Sometimes I leave my stuff around the house," Briana said. "I really do try to pick it up though."
At home on South Campus, the amount of discussion on basketball really varies from house to house. For Ford and Brianna Butler, their apartment is a place to take their minds off of the game, a sanctuary from the daily grind of basketball.
"Very rarely do we talk about it unless it’s men’s basketball or the NBA," Butler said. "We’ll talk about their games or just play 2K so not so much talking about basketball. More so, how our day was or joking around."
For Sykes and Fondren, there’s no boundary between basketball and home life. They watch basketball as a form of entertainment, but also to scout potential opponents.
"We’ll watch any game that’s on TV," Sykes said. "If a girls' game is on, we’ll watch it. If we know people who are playing on the team, we’ll watch them play and then just talk about when we play them, what will work against them."
The pairing of Peterson and fellow freshman Tasia Butler may be the happy medium. They occasionally mention basketball, but also like cooking together and talking about shopping.
On South Campus, it's almost always a lively environment. After all, seeing a few teammates is only a few minutes away. That certainly helps when the temperature drops into single digits.
"We all kind of live close to each other," Ford said. "So if I’m bored, I’ll go to Brittney’s house. She lives like right down the block."
In addition to becoming the team's leading scorer, Sykes appears to have emerged as the center of attention, a title Coffey accepts – begrudgingly.
"She thinks sometimes that she’s the life of the party," Coffey said. "But, yeah, usually we go over to her house and watch movies or whatever, have dinner."
In addition to welcoming transfer Maggie Morrison onto the team, Sykes also hosted the gatherings to watch one of the team’s favorite TV shows.
"Everything happens at our house now," Sykes said. "Scandal is about to come up. Last semester, Scandal was at our house most of the time."
On Feb. 6, Sykes had a dominating performance against Virginia Tech, compiling a career-high 31 points. Sitting right next to her in the post-game press conference was her roommate – Cornelia Fondren. Fondren scored nine points that night, a career-high of her own. Like so many times this season, Sykes and Fondren have been at their best with each other on the court.
But when the reporters went home, the Carrier Dome lights went off and the 344 bus went to the right stop, all that was left was two self-described "goofballs". Sykes, who says she wants to visit Fondren’s hometown of Memphis, considers her more than just a teammate and a roommate.
"I consider her family."