All season long, Brittney Sykes has single-handedly won games for her team. This time, the team won it for Brittney.
Syracuse (23-9) held on for a 59-53 victory against the Chattanooga Mocs, despite playing the last 12:46 without its leading scorer. Sykes injured her right knee in the second half and left the game on crutches. SU has not yet announced her status for the team's second round game against Kentucky on Monday.
It was the one somber moment in what was otherwise a historic day for Syracuse women's basketball. The Orange had not won a single game in the NCAA Tournament in 42 seasons of existence. Syracuse ended the streak by persevering through a tough challenge from the Mocs, as well as the mental challenge of continuing play after a gruesome injury.
Although Sykes was not able to be on the court when the Orange sealed the victory, she was able to come back to the bench to urge on her team in the final few minutes. Seeing them win won't help her physical pain, but it certainly helped her demeanor.
"As a team, we all know the feeling of losing in the first round," she said Friday. "We have a sense of urgency. We’re more hungry to win and make history as a team, and as a whole, for Syracuse."
Sykes was injured midway through the second half with the Orange leading, 40-36. Like so many times this season, she aggressively drove to the hoop and weaved around a few defenders. But this time was different. She stayed down on the court of Memorial Coliseum, shrieking in pain. Her teammates were very emotional on the sideline as the game was stopped for a few minutes. SU hasn't had to deal with any considerable injuries this season, much less one to its star player in an elimination game. Hillsman knew it wouldn't be easy to finally end Syracuse's long NCAA drought. But he couldn't have imagined anything like this.
When the game resumed, the Orange offense looked lost without Sykes. Not only is she the team leader in points, but also the most efficient shooter at 51 percent. She does a good job of pushing the pace and attacking the rim. Before leaving the game, Sykes had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
In the first two minutes without her, Syracuse didn't score. At one point, the Orange missed 13 straight shots until Brianna Butler scored to go up 50-43. Butler had been limited for most of the game and Hillsman used one his timeouts to criticize her for not doing enough.
She scored an easy layup on the first play after the timeout. Nine of her 13 points came after Sykes left the game.
A good sign for Syracuse was Sykes' return from the locker room to the bench with about seven minutes left. The Orange got a bit of a boost and jumped out to a 54-44 advantage, the biggest lead of the game. Syracuse was also able to lock down on defense in the second half. The Mocs didn't make a field goal for almost six straight minutes of game time until Ashley Dewart scored with 4:36 left in the game.
Hillsman uses a 2-3 zone, modeled off the one used by Jim Boeheim. In fact, Hillsman says he often seeks out Boeheim's advice about game preparation or defensive scheming.
"The best thing is that he’s so open," Hillsman said. "I can walk down there every day and get a 2-3 zone clinic. It’s been good for me because I’ve been able to watch it and watch it be successful."
The solid defensive play allowed the Orange to close out the game without much drama. The Mocs weren't able to make it a one-possession game at any point in the last four minutes. Shakeya Leary iced the game at the free throw line with nine seconds left, ending a historic – and emotional – day for the Orange.
"It means a lot to our players," Hillsman said on Monday when asked about the importance of this game.
He added, "We want them to go out with as much success as possible and this win would mean a lot to our program."