Four seasons at Syracuse, three NIT appearances, two years as starting point guard and one last chance to extend her career. But the most important number for Rachel Coffey right now is zero – that’s how many NCAA Tournament wins Syracuse has.
It’s a number the players know very well of, but prefer not to think about. But don’t be mistaken, the importance of Saturday’s game is not lost on the team. Coffey, in particular, doesn’t want her next game to be her last at Syracuse.
"I want to win it so bad, probably as much as I want my degree," Coffey said.
The Syracuse Orange has a chance to make history on Saturday when the team plays the Chattanooga Mocs in the Round of 64. They face off at 1:30 on ESPN2. Although all of the tournament teams have the pressure of keeping their season alive, this game has special importance for Syracuse. The Orange, the No. 6 seed, will be looking to pick up its first NCAA win in team history.
"It means a lot," Coffey said. "With me being a senior and ending my college career, hopefully we can end it in history."
The Orange is 0-5 in the Big Dance, but coach Quentin Hillsman guaranteed the streak is about to end.
"We’re going to win the basketball game," he said. "We’re very prepared and we will be very prepared to win the game. So it’s not going to be a lot of pressure. It’s just going to be about us executing and winning the game."
Twice, Hillsman’s Orange made the NCAA Tournament as a seven seed. Both times Syracuse was upset in the first round. Syracuse lost a 59-55 game to Hartford in Hillsman’s second year as head coach. Last season, the Orange ran into the Creighton Bluejays, one of the nation’s best outside shooting teams. The Bluejays, unfazed by the 2-3 zone, made 11 three-pointers. The Orange lost, 61-56. Although that game didn’t end how Hillsman wanted, he said it will still help his players as they prepare for Saturday.
"You had freshmen playing on a very big stage," he said. "I think the experience being back in the tournament will help us a lot."
One of the freshmen in that game was Brittney Sykes, who scored five points on 2-9 shooting. This season, Sykes has led the team in scoring (16.7 points per game) and field goal percentage (51 percent). Sykes says she made a pact with her sophomore class to reach the NCAA Tournament every year, and be part of the Syracuse team that finally ends the 42-year postseason streak. She reached the halfway mark to the first goal on Monday and could complete the second this weekend.
"Making it is not just enough," Sykes said. "It’s the fact that you want to win and you want to advance."
This game may be the best opportunity Syracuse has ever had. Only the 1988 Orange was seeded as highly as No. 6. But that was before the tournament field expanded to 64 teams. SU’s first game that year – a 41 point loss – came to the three-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes.
This year’s team also has, perhaps, the best chance for tournament success because most of the players will be playing in their second NCAA game. It’s the first time that SU made the tournament in consecutive years. Syracuse’s previous appearances were in 1985, 1988, 2002 and 2008.
"Back-to-back is just tremendous for this program," Hillsman said. "Everything that these girls are doing is creating more history and creating more positive history. You want to keep playing at a high level, keep winning and make this a yearly thing when you know you’re getting in."
Coffey says this year will be different – in the team’s preparation, mentality and demeanor. Last year, the players got their feet wet. This year, in her words, they have a business-like mentality. But with a second chance comes more expectations. With a loss, this team would end up on the wrong side of Syracuse history.
"Two years in a row, you're known as being the team to lose the first game," Coffey said. "We don't want that to happen."
Regardless of the outcome, Coffey will be known as a central figure in the franchise’s rise to relevance. Her class is the second winningest ever, only topped by last year’s seniors. Syracuse has won at least 22 games in each of her four years. In the previous decade, SU averaged 14 wins per season.
"I’m very proud," Coffey said. "I never thought in a million years that it would be like this – able to make history. I’m just happy and grateful for the opportunity."
Last March, Coffey had to watch Kayla Alexander, the team’s all-time scoring leader, finish her college career in the first round. Alexander’s otherwise great career ended unceremoniously, without having ended the Orange drought. Coffey doesn’t want to become Kayla Alexander.
Nor do her teammates want her to be.
Said Sykes, "I love her to death so to see her get an NCAA win and be the first to do it in history would be great."