In the first game between Syracuse and Pittsburgh as ACC foes, it was only fitting to have a game that was reminiscent of an old Big East fight -- stingy defense, a combined 44 fouls and an outcome not determined until the final few minutes.
The Orange (13-5, 2-3 ACC) has struggled to close out games on the road this season, but held on to beat the Panthers (9-10, 1-4 ACC) in front of 4,649 fans in the Petersen Events Center. The play wasn't pretty, but the outcome was for Quentin Hillsman, who has seen his fair share of drama away from the Carrier Dome. Three times this season, his team has lost road games by seven points or fewer. And Syracuse's only previous road win came in a 69-65 nailbiting game on Opening Night.
On Sunday, it took almost all forty minutes for Syracuse to shake off the Panthers, who didn't win a conference game in the Big East last season. These two teams have played each other 50 times, and at least once in every season since 1979-80. The Orange holds the series lead, now 31-19.
"(Pittsburgh) got some offensive rebounds and really attacked the glass on us early in the game," Hillsman said. "Down the stretch, they did a very good job getting to the basket. I have to give Pitt a lot of credit. They are much improved from last year."
"We did a very good job of getting our defense set and getting stops," Hillsman said. "That was the key for us in the game. We weren’t shooting the ball very well. We didn’t shoot a very high percentage. But our defense really, really clamped down in the second half and we got some key stops and some key rebounds."
As a team, Syracuse shot just 31 percent, well below its season average. Brittney Sykes and Briana Butler led the Orange in points with 15 and 14, respectively. But, Briana Day and Taylor Ford, a pair of bench players, were the only two for Syracuse to shoot efficiently. Day scored 13 points on 3-4 shooting. Ford went 4-9 for ten points, including a three. Both had double-doubles and gave the Orange a much-needed rebounding advantage.
Because of this duo, Syracuse outscored Pitt in bench points, 25-11. With the win, the Orange is now 9-2 in games in which its bench has the advantage.
Day has played more and more as her freshman season has gone on. She came to Syracuse as a very athletic player, but a little bit out of control, Sykes said last week. Now, she's calm and collected, and her minutes have gone up.
"She listened to us and listened to the coaching staff and put in extra work in the gym," Sykes said. "The results have shown. When you work hard, you play. We are all really proud of her."
Early in the game, Syracuse fell behind 11-5 after the Panthers converted three field goals in the first four minutes. But they wouldn't hit another three for the rest of the half. In fact, Pittsburgh didn't make another field goal for the next nine minutes and 56 seconds. During that span, the Orange went on a 19-2 run.
16% shooting by Pitt is a season low for an SU opponent in the 1st half (UMES 21.7%). 18 pts is 3rd-fewest allowed (Maine 13, UMES 15).
— SU Women's Hoops (@CuseWBB) January 19, 2014
At the half, the Orange led 30-18. It looked as if Syracuse was well on its way to beating the struggling Panthers, who lost by 51 points in the Carrier Dome last season. But the Orange just couldn't pull away. Pittsburgh chipped away at the lead, staying within ten points for most of the second half. And Syracuse couldn't reproduce its earlier scoring run to put the game out of reach.
Down nine with under six minutes less, the Panthers mounted one last comeback attempt. Back-to-back layups by Ashlee Anderson and Cora McManus cut the deficit to five. With 3:10 left, Chyna Golden made two free throws, which shrunk Syracuse's 12 point halftime lead to three.
But the game was sealed by Brianna Butler, the nation's leader in three-pointers made. Except this time, it was her defense. She stole an inbounds pass with 1:52 left and found Brittney Sykes, in transition, for a layup.
On Thursday, the Orange take on a new foe, the Clemson Tigers. But the game is in the familiar confines of the Carrier Dome, where Syracuse has dominated over the last few years.
"We know going home, we have some tough games ahead of us," Hillsman said. "If we can take care of home court and continue to play solid on the road, we’ll be in good shape."