When Quentin Hillsman needed a three-point shooting spark against Virginia, he went with starting point guard Rachel Coffey.
When Syracuse needed physical, lockdown defense to stop North Carolina’s guards, Hillsman brought Cornelia Fondren off the bench.
When the Orange needed a second half jolt versus Georgia Tech, Hillsman called upon freshman Alexis Peterson.
The point guard position has been the Swiss-army knife for Syracuse (23-9) this season. To beat the #3 seed Kentucky Wildcats on Monday, SU will need one of the biggest performances out of the versatile trio. Syracuse will focus on slowing down the game, limiting possessions and avoiding live-ball turnovers, Hillsman said Sunday. The Wildcats scored 106 in the opening round against Wright State.
And without the scoring punch of Brittney Sykes, every possession and every shot for Syracuse becomes a little bit more important. Sykes injured her right knee on Saturday against Chattanooga and will not play against Kentucky. She will be fully evaluated when the team returns to Syracuse on Monday.
"Brittney’s a unique player for us," Hillsman said. "She has been for the past two years now so it’s going to be tough to replace. We’re not going to sit here and fool each other and say we got somebody who could step right in and do the things she can do."
La’Shay Taft will likely get the starting nod, but all three points guards should see an expanded role as well. At times this season, Hillsman has opted to play two point guards on the floor at one time. Both Coffey and Fondren can move from their usual position to the two-guard spot. It allows the Orange to get a little more balance from the backcourt, something Hillsman has emphasized.
"Rachel’s a very good shooter and is good at coming off ball screens and Cornelia is very tough and scrappy defensively," he said. "Alexis is kind of a combination of them both."
It gives Syracuse an advantage because opponents have to game plan against three different players and three different styles. Even Coach Q doesn’t know who is going to get playing time from one game to the next. It’s just about finding the hot hand.
"I love it, honestly, because now teams have to prepare for each and every one of them," Sykes said. "You have three people in the same position and you have to know which one is which."
The importance of the point guard position isn’t in the scoring – Coffey’s 5.9 points per game is the highest average of three. It’s their ability to make Syracuse one of the most disciplined ball-handling teams in the country.
The Orange offense isn't quite as efficient this year, so mistakes are even more costly. WNBA center Kayla Alexander isn't around anymore to get easy baskets in the paint. Syracuse’s shooting percentage has dropped and its field goal percentage allowed has risen. The Orange has shot 39.6 percent on the season, less than one percent better than its opponents. Without Sykes’ production, the team's field goal percentage dips to 37.1 percent.
It’s quantity – not quality – that has allowed Syracuse to win. The Orange improved its turnover margin this season to an ACC-best +5.1 per game. On the season, SU has taken 192 more shots than its opponents. That’s exactly six shots more per game.
Having three good players vying for one position can sometimes make for a tricky situation. When Hillsman came to Syracuse, he inherited a losing program. At first, it was hard to convince his players to adopt a team-first mentality. But now that Syracuse has made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years, they're starting to buy into his mantra.
"If I only play two minutes, but Alexis is out there scoring or (Cornelia) is out there scoring, I have to sit back and accept that because we’re all a team," Coffey said. "And you just got to be happy for the one in front of you."
Coffey, the senior, averages 23 minutes and started every game this season but one. But Hillsman hasn't hesitated to put pressure on his freshman point guards. Last year, Fondren was the starter in her first year at Syracuse. Peterson, this year's frosh, has been one of the first players off the bench. She credits the guidance from Coffey and Fondren as the reason for her immediate success.
"They’re both very good point guards," Peterson said. "They understand the system here. It’s been an honor to be able to work with them every day."
When the Orange and Wildcats tip off, Fondren will be watching from the bench. But she says how Syracuse finishes is more important than how it starts.
Said Fondren on the starting lineup, "It really doesn't matter to me. As long as we win the game, it shouldn't make a difference who starts."