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Syracuse Center Looks To Build On Record-Breaking Season As Orange Begins NCAA Tournament

Syracuse sophomore center Briana Day says she wants to shake off a tough tournament loss last season by beating Nebraska on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The memory still haunts Briana Day even 360 days later.

Then a freshman bench player, she sat and watched most of the game when Syracuse nearly reached the program's first ever Sweet Sixteen, almost upset goliath Kentucky and advance on the Wildcats' home court. But, instead, one of Syracuse's winningest seasons was cut short by just three possessions as Wildcats hung on for a 64-59 win in the Round of 32.

Syracuse hopes to get back to the second round when it faces the ninth-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers on Friday night, the first time for Day and the Orange to avenge that loss from almost a year ago.

"It really sucks to lose by such a little amount of points so our goal is just to go out there and play hard," Day said. "Because I’d rather get beat by 20 than like five points. You’re right there."

Day and the Orange have relied on that game for motivation sometimes this year, often bringing up that only a few plays were the difference between winning and losing.

Day's team, meanwhile, has relied on her interior defense and steady offense to stay near the top of one of the best conferences in the country. Her significant development has allowed the Orange to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third season in a row, even with Brittney Sykes being hurt for most of the year and Brianna Butler being inefficient for long stretches of time.

The 6-foot-4 sophomore center averages 9.8 points, 10.6 rebounds per game and 2.8 blocks per game. Even at a school that's produced a few great centers in recent years, some of her accomplishments are unprecedented.

No Syracuse player has ever gotten more rebounds in a season that she has this year.

No one in the ACC has more gotten more offensive rebounds in a game this season than she has.

No one who has played for Quentin Hillsman has had a bigger percentage of the team's rebounds than she has.

"It's just her work ethic," Hillsman said. "She stayed after it. I think she's really been making a conscious effort to get in better shape. She's made a conscious effort to get every possession."

Hillsman's centers have been a strength of late, with seemingly one just as good as the other at protecting the paint. Kayla Alexander broke a laundry list of Syracuse records during her four year career and then fifth-year senior Shakeya Leary stepped into that role last season and excelled. Day didn't start a game a game a year ago, but was able to put up similar per minute scoring and rebounding totals in a lesser role. With Leary's graduation, Day has grown into the latest great Syracuse center and one of the best frontcourt players in the ACC.

"I'm not really surprised," Day said. "I knew what I was capable of. I just had to wait my turn."

But Day doesn't follow the mold of Hillsman's past bigs. She's very thin and lanky and relies on movement rather than muscle. On many nights, she's matched up against bulkier centers who weight 30 or 40 pounds heavier.

"I'm just as big as they are in my heart," Day joked after one game. "You have to play like that, honestly, because it's a mental thing. If you say 'Oh I know they're bigger than me', you're going to play like you're smaller."

Her sister, Bria Day, is a backup center on the team who averages about ten minutes per game. She said the biggest difference this year for Briana has been understanding what Hillsman wants, which has been focusing on athleticism rather than putting on weight.

"I think that would definitely be our advantage because we can use our quickness against bigger players," Bria Day said.

Two of the most vocal players on the bench are Bria Day and assistant coach Sasha Palma.  Most of the time their directing their attention to Briana by giving her tactical advice and reminders.

"The key is you have to always talk," Briana Day said. "You have to constantly be talking when you're the center. You're the most important person in the zone because you see everything and you have to make sure that people don't get inside the paint."

The results have showed this season. She's racked up 13 double-doubles this year and could be the first Syracuse player in 12 seasons to average one for a season.

Some of her stat lines have been eye-popping. Against Duquesne, she was one rebound short of a 20-20 night. Against Pittsburgh, she had a good chance for a triple-double during parts of the game.

But like last season's loss to Kentucky, it's those near misses that encourage Day to get even better.

"It does amaze me," Day said. "But then when I look at games like that when I'm that close, I go back and see where I missed those opportunities. And I'm like darn it, I could have had it."