On Monday, coach Quentin Hillsman criticized his team following a near-collapse against Temple. Hillsman felt that the Orange needed to be tougher, do a better job at rebounding and play tighter defense.
On Thursday, his mission was accomplished. The Orange was more physical, won the rebounding battle and held Niagara to long scoring draughts.
The No. 23 Syracuse Orange defeated the Niagara Purple Eagles, 80-44, in the Carrier Dome. Isabella Slim scored a career-high 17 points on 5-8 shooting from behind-the-arc.
"Our team did a very good job at getting her looks," Hillsman said. "I thought we did an excellent job at finding her when she was open."
Throughout the beginning of the season, Hillsman hyped up Slim as a secondary shooting option for Syracuse behind Brianna Butler. But on most nights, she fell well short of his lofty expectations. Coming into the night, Slim only averaged 24 percent from outside. On Thursday, she showed flashes of why Hillsman chose to start her over older guards.
"It felt great," said Slim, a freshman from the Netherlands. "I got the same shots I get every game. This time, I was just able to make them."
Having the faith to start a freshman from a foreign country may seem risky. But Hillsman developed that trust in Slim while coaching her Dutch national team this summer. That trust is also what made Syracuse an obvious choice for Slim and what is making her transition to campus a little bit easier.
"It definitely helps because I already know him," Slim said before the season. "He’s the most important person and you have to trust him."
Slim’s final three-pointer came with just 41 seconds left, the cherry on top of a game without any drama or suspense. The Orange jumped out to a 4-0 advantage early on. Unlike Syracuse’s past two games, it never gave up the lead. In fact, the only time Syracuse didn’t have the lead was in the first 13 seconds when it was 0-0. SU shut out Niagara for a full 7:28 during the middle of the first half. It propelled the Orange to a 20-2 run. By halftime, Syracuse led 44-23.
Center Shakeya Leary had a quiet start, but played pretty well after intermission. Leary scored 11 of her 13 points in the second half and had five rebounds. Brianna Butler scored two points on a cold-shooting night, but helped out with three assists and three steals.
SU played an efficient game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2:1. For the Eagles, it was the complete opposite. They turned the ball over 27 times and spent plenty of time on Jim Boeheim Court just running back on defense.
"I’m really happy with the way we ran and pushed the tempo," Hillsman said. "I think our pressure was really good. We sped them up."
Syracuse outscored Niagara in points-off-turnovers, 27-6. The leader of the fast-break offense was Brittney Sykes, Syracuse’s strong and speedy sophomore guard. She had 20 points, giving her three straight games with at least that total.
"She’s the most athletic player in the gym on most nights," Hillsman said. "As long as she concentrates on running the floor and getting to the rim, she’ll have easy games like this."
Even if Sykes wasn’t able to score at the rim, she was able to draw fouls. She went 8-8 from the free-throw line and has made her last 14 attempts, dating back to the game against Temple. If she can continue to shoot well from the line, it will be a huge bonus for the Orange. Sykes has attempted over twice as many free throws as any other Syracuse player. But making those shots has been a part of Sykes’ game that has lagged behind. Last year, she shot just 61 percent, well below the team average.
"It’s big for me because I struggled last year and I struggled a little bit in the Paradise Jam," Sykes said. "So I was hard on myself to make every free throw after practice."
Sykes was also a clear beneficiary from Slim’s performance. That level of three point shooting creates better spacing for the offense and lowers the pressure on Sykes, the team’s leading scorer.
"If one person is off, two people are off, or if somebody is having a rough night or in foul trouble, we know that we can depend on somebody else on the bench or in the game that can come through any given night and have a huge game," she said. "That’s great for us."