A wise professor once told me, "The most obvious answer is usually the correct answer."
So with Villanova's aggressive post player Laura Sweeney sidelined with a concussion, it came as no surprise when the Orange looked to Kayla Alexander to avoid an almost disastrous meltdown.
Alexander had the ball with under two minutes left and a two point lead. Syracuse's center dribbled, then maneuvered through two Wildcat defenders and scored to go up 55-51. It was her 31st and 32nd point of the game, but more importantly, prevented the Wildcats from completing the comeback.
The No. 24/21 Syracuse Orange (24-6) beat the Villanova Wildcats (21-10), 61-56 in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals on Sunday night.
Alexander scored 34 points on 15-23 shooting and had 15 rebounds. It seemed as if every possession when Alexander wasn't receiving entry passes, she was collecting rebounds off missed jump shots and scoring easy put-backs. The 6-foot-4 center had nine offensive boards, many leading to second chance points.
"I always tell her, she's my lifeline," coach Quentin Hillsman said. "When you have a player this talented, you have to find a way to make her better."
"Honestly I give it all back to my teammates," Alexander said. "We played a great inside-outside game."
Midway in the second half, the Orange had a comfortable 15 point lead and Alexander was scoring at will. Hillsman probably didn't think he would have to sweat out the last few minutes.
The Wildcats went on a 21-8 run and the Syracuse lead was down to two with two minutes to play. After Alexander's field goal, Villanova wasn't able to get any closer than four points away. Rachel Coffey made the front half of a 1-and-1 and Alexander sunk both free throws on the following possession.
Syracuse frequently starts out slow, but had no such trouble on Sunday night. About a minute into the game, freshman point guard Cornelia Fondren missed an inside shot, but Alexander was left unaccounted for. She grabbed the rebound and put back an easy lay up to put Syracuse up 4-3. The Orange kept giving it to Alexander and the Wildcats, without their best player, didn't have an answer.
Villanova led 12-8 seven minutes into the game when the Orange began a 16-0 run, bookended by two Alexander baskets. It began when she put back a missed Rachel Coffey jump shot. The Wildcats turned the ball over on the ensuing offensive possession and Brianna Butler hit a three pointer. A few minutes later, Carmen Tyson-Thomas missed the second of two free throws, but the Wildcats forgot to box out Butler. Butler calmly grabbed the long rebound and made a short jumper to put SU up 20-12. Alexander's short jumper at the 6:44 mark in the first half completed the run and put the Orange up 24-12.
But Alexander wasn't the only SU player who was able to score inside. Lacie Hall backed down her defender in the paint and then scored to put the Orange up 32-23, the eventual halftime score.
When the second half began, Alexander picked up right where she left off. She secured an offensive rebound following a Hall miss and scored 36 seconds into the half. Throughout the game, Syracuse had easier shots than Villanova. The Orange 2-3 zone relegated the Wildcats to taking contested, low-percentage three pointers with the shot clock running down.
The Wildcats had an offensive set late in the first half that was a microcosm of their offense. Devon Kane passed to Laure Burford, who gave it to Jesse Carey. She passed back to Kane, who was forced to find something to do with the shot clock running out. With Fondren pressuring her, Kane dribbled off her foot, leading to a rare Wildcat turnover.
The Orange lost to Villanova twice this season: 64-59 on Jan. 26 and 77-75 in triple overtime on March 2.
Hillsman said this time was different because SU was able to get out on Villanova's three point shooters.
"I give our kids a lot of credit," he said. "We just wanted to come out and make sure we contested every shot."
Much of that was due to the absence of Sweeney, who scored 29 points in the triple overtime game. Sweeney is the team leader in scoring, rebounds, field goal percentage, blocks, and steals. Without having to guard against Sweeney's post presence, the Orange defenders were able to extend the zone outward. Syracuse had a 44-31 rebounding advantage and led points in the paint 36-10.
Hall scored nine points, but Alexander was the only Syracuse player to score in double-digits. Hillsman said he didn't know how to fully develop and use Alexander until this year. He said he deserved a C- grade in those aspects last year. But coaching alone wasn't enough. Alexander had to work and improve on her own, Hillsman said.
"If she didn’t do her job, my job didn’t matter," he said. "She makes me look good so I have to give her a lot of credit."
Syracuse reaches its first Big East semifinal since 2002. Hillsman said he relishes the opportunity to face UConn, one of the best teams in the country. Last time these two teams met, Alexander got in early foul trouble and the Huskies cruised to an 87-62 victory.
"They push you on every possession," Hillsman said. "We can't foul ourselves out of the game."