"What was different after halftime?"
That's been the question asked throughout the season to Brittney Sykes, who's made a habit of having big second halves after relatively quieter starts. On Thursday, she didn't have to answer that question. Her monster first half performance did all the talking.
"Usually it takes me until the second half to realize how they’re playing me," Sykes said. "But my teammates were giving me the ball and trusting me. I was finding open gaps and, luckily, I was scoring the ball early and that was getting us on a roll."
Sykes scored 21 points in the first half alone, the most for any Syracuse player before intermission since 2009. It helped the Orange take an overwhelming 19 point halftime lead, one the team did not relinquish. The Syracuse Orange (17-6, 6-4) beat the Virginia Tech Hokies 73-48 in the Carrier Dome, thanks to the performance of its super sophomore sensation.
On this night, the Orange traded in the usual colors for pink uniforms to support Breast Cancer Awareness, as part of Play 4Kay Day.
"It’s a privilege and an honor just to be able to contribute and help a great cause," Quentin Hillsman said.
But once the game started, the story was all about Brittney Sykes, who had the game of her life. She finished the game with a career-high 31 points, with seemingly every basket more impressive than the one before.
The Orange started slow, only hitting one of its first eight shots. With Syracuse trailing by one, Sykes led a resurgence. She scored 12 of her team's next 14 points, which put Syracuse up nine midway through the half. In total, the Orange had 25 points off turnovers in the game, many from Sykes. She seemed to be soaring from outside the ACC logo, somehow managing to propel her arm a few feet forward and in ready position for an easy layup. Her long line-drive strides to the basket were too much for the Hokies.
"She was very big, obviously, at attacking the rim and getting in the paint in transition," Hillsman said. "She was hard to guard tonight. When she plays that way, she’ll be successful."
It wasn't all layups, though. She hit a mid-range jumper to go up 26-12. And about a minute later, she snuck under the basket and caught an in-bounds pass from Rachel Coffey for an easy score.
In ACC play, Sykes is shooting just 39 percent in the first half, compared to 52 percent in the second. It's caused Hillsman to be tough on his best player at intermission about starting slow. By halftime, Sykes shot 8-11 and it looked like she may be able to escape the wrath of Coach Q.
"I told her at halftime that she blew two assignments and I had to take a timeout to take her out of the game," Hillsman said.
"I’m not going to stop coaching. She could have had 71 tonight. I'm not going to stop."
Hillsman wanted strong defensive play in the second half and that's what he received. The Hokies shot 27 percent and scored 26 points the rest of the way. The key cog for the Orange was freshman Briana Day, who had 12 rebounds and six blocks.
"She’s a very good anchor in our zone," Hillsman said. "She gets up-and-down the floor and can attack the offensive glass and rebound the basketball."
Sykes continued to score periodically up until the 13:03 mark in the second half. An anxious-looking Sykes needed one basket to break the record and she knew it.
"I got subbed out and I looked up at the scoreboard and I had 27," she said. "So I was hoping that coach would put me back in so I could beat my career high."
Finally at the 8:29 mark, she took a pass from Coffey in transition, muscled off a defender and glided the ball in -- the highlight of an otherwise noncompetitive second half. It pleased Daryl Gross, Floyd Little and even chancellor Kent Syverud, who sat courtside, enjoying the Orange win.
Although this marks Sykes' career-high at Syracuse, she has had scoring nights just as impressive in high school. But this performance stands above all others.
Said Sykes, "I always think back to high school and think that I could drop 50 points at the drop of a dime now. But we’re in college so to score 31 in college is better."