Quentin Hillsman said recently that he only wanted one gift this Christmas – wins. "I'll take W's and no presents and I'll be good," he joked.
He may consider this season the gift that keeps on giving.
With the score tied, Brittney Sykes hit a short leaning jumper about six feet from the basket, just before the buzzer sounded. It ended a back-and-forth game against the St. Joseph's Hawks and gave Syracuse a 64-62 victory. Sykes scored a team-high 20 points, now her fourth straight game with at least that total.
"We just wanted to get her open," Hillsman said of the last play. "We've been running that elbow play...actually I kind of stole that from Jim Boeheim. I went to the men's game when they played in the Garden and he kept getting the ball to C.J. at the elbow and he runs a little rub screen for him."
Behind Sykes, the leading scorers for Syracuse were Brianna Butler with 15 and Briana Day with 10. Syracuse didn't have a great shooting performance, but won by making free throws and grabbing rebounds. The Orange went 17-17 from the charity stripe and out-rebounded the Hawks, 56-34. Centers Shakeya Leary and Briana Day both got five offensive rebounds.
"When you shoot 30 percent, there are a lot of them to get," Hillsman said. "Just a tremendous effort by our team, knowing the importance of getting offensive rebounds and getting second chance points."
The Hawks opened the game on an 8-0 run, including a pair of three-pointers from Erin Shields. Sykes made a layup at 17:30, but St. Joe's responded by scoring the next five points. Early in the first half, the Hawks lead fluctuated between six and 14. A turning point came when Syracuse was down nine points with just under eight minutes left. The Orange shut out the Hawks for the next 7:43 and went on a 14-0 run to retake the lead. Syracuse went into halftime with a narrow three point lead.
The Hawks opened up the second half the same way they began the game. They started the half with a 15-2 run, which put them back up by ten points. With the Orange struggling to guard Erin Shields and Natasha Cloud, Syracuse switched from the 2-3 defense to man-to-man.
"We wanted to try to isolate them from scoring the basketball," guard Brianna Butler said. "It was working for us when we started to stick out of our 2-3. It was a switch that Coach Q saw and it worked for us."
The Orange slowly chipped away at the deficit. With under four minutes left, Fondren held the ball at the top of the key, with the Orange down two. Fondren circled the ball around to Brianna Butler, who redirected the ball just as quickly as she caught it. Butler found senior guard Rachel Coffey, who was left open in the right corner. Coffey sunk a three-pointer to give Syracuse a one-point lead with 3:32 to go. It was Syracuse's first lead since the first minute of the half. The Orange had trailed for the past 15:29 of playing time.
After St. Joe's tied it at 60, Sykes stood at the free throw line with 44 seconds left. She made both attempts. In the past three games, Sykes has made 22 consecutive free throws.
But – again – the Hawks had an answer. Natasha Cloud muscled her way into the paint and floated the ball in. Syracuse called a timeout and Sykes, the leading scorer, was the obvious choice to take the last shot. She took the ball near the top of the key and found an opening.
"I knew that once the ball was in my hand, I either had to initiate the contact or finish the play because none of us wanted to go into overtime," Sykes said.
She drove forward and then hesitated to draw a pair of defenders closer. Sykes then drove past them, giving her enough space to use her right hand to drop in the game-winner.
"Coach told me go right and finish the play. Bring the game home for us," Sykes said. "And that's what I did."