At the start of every game, Brittney Sykes stood at center court ready to jump for the opening tipoff. It was one of many responsibilities for the 5-9, do-it-all guard. But in Syracuse’s final game, Sykes took a different position – at the end of the bench, sidelined with a right knee injury.
It was a strange sight for her teammates, but one they will have to get used to for a long time. Sykes will undergo surgery to fix the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in her right knee, SU Athletics announced on Friday. SU did not reveal the extent of the injury, so her timetable for return is unknown. Sykes averaged 16.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game this season.
"I am 100 percent dedicated to rehabbing and coming back strong for the upcoming season," Sykes said. "I am looking forward to being back on the court with my teammates making Syracuse proud."
She injured her knee in Syracuse’s first-round win in the NCAA Tournament against Chattanooga. After driving to basket, she landed awkwardly and stayed motionless on the court for several minutes.
"I’ve never felt a pain like that before," Sykes told Orange All-Access.
"There was too much going through my head. I was wondering will I be able to get up. Will I be able to play the rest of the game?"
Sykes didn’t return for the final 12:46 of the game and was inactive for Syracuse’s 64-59 loss to Kentucky. Without being able to play, she tried to help out in any way possible – addressing her teammates before they faced the Wildcats, cheering them on from the bench and diagramming plays for point guard Cornelia Fondren.
"She just really wanted us to keep our heads up, play hard and play smart," Brianna Butler said. "She really encouraged us the whole time."
But it wasn’t enough. Syracuse only shot 33 percent. The Orange turned the ball over 23 times, one shy of a season-high. As her team fell just short of a late comeback, Sykes sat as a spectator with her knee propped up on an Orange chair. It was an anticlimactic ending to a near flawless sophomore season. She scored 532 points, the fifth highest single-season total in team history. It’s no coincidence that it coincided with one of the greatest seasons Syracuse has ever had.
"Brittney’s a unique player for us," coach Quentin Hillsman said. "She has been for the past two years now."
When Hillsman began the year, he knew it would be tough not having WNBA-center Kayla Alexander, Syracuse’s all-time points leader. Hillsman challenged Sykes to fill that void and score in bunches like she did at University High School in Newark, N.J. At times, that meant being absolutely brutal.
If Brittney turned the ball over, he’d be sure to let her know his opinion. If Brittney settled for a jumper, she’d get an earful from the sideline. On the night Brittney scored a career-high, Hillsman nitpicked to the media. A few too many defensive lapses, he said. It didn’t matter if Syracuse was down three or up thirty. Every moment was a chance to squeeze an extra ounce out of Sykes.
"Everybody sees him yell at me," Sykes joked. "We’re going to call it coaching."
But in Sykes’ worst moment of the season, Hillsman was her biggest supporter. The players cleared away and it was just Britt and Q. He knelt down on the floor, palmed her head and whispered words of support.
"I told her that we’re not here without you," Hillsman said. "I told her that you’re the reason why we’re here and no matter what the outcome of the situation is – we thank you for us being here."
"Coach is very caring and very loving and I respect that from him a lot," Sykes said. "It felt good to have somebody there in my ear."
Pretty quickly, the support came in from around the Syracuse community. Sykes says she received hundreds of messages on Twitter. People offered their condolences through Facebook, Instagram and text messages, as well. It will be a long recovery process that won’t be easy. But the kind words, she says, certainly help.
Said Sykes, "I would like to thank everyone for showing their concern and sending their support and prayers to the team and me. It means a lot and has helped me push through this past week."