By Syracuse Orange women’s basketball head coach Quentin Hillsman’s standards, SU fell short of its goals in the 2017-2018 season. The Orange ran into a menacing Oklahoma State team in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, losing a cold 84-57 opener in Starkville, Miss. on March 17.
Last season and this season are starting on chords at opposite ends of the spectrum. Last year’s team fielded just one returning starter in (then-sophomore guard) Gabrielle Cooper. There was a plethora of voids to fill — mainly at the point guard position, as ‘Cuse women’s hoops legend Alexis Peterson left for the WNBA. That role was filled by budding superstar Tiana Mangakahia. As a redshirt sophomore transfer, Mangakahia set a new single-season ACC assists record, dishing out 304 dimes and 9.8 per game. Syracuse ultimately finished eighth in the conference with a 22-9 overall record and a 10-6 record within the ACC.
Now, the Orange begin with all five starters returning to the lineup, a rarity of sorts. Assuming health, Mangakahia, Cooper, Miranda Drummond, Amaya Finklea-Guity, and Digna Strautmane are all back and are likely to return to the roles they previously occupied. As the Orange return those starters, they usher in some fresh, highly-anticipated talent into its rotation.
‘Cuse freshman forward Emily Engstler was named the 2017-2018 New York State High School Player of the Year back in March. The Fresh Meadows, N.Y. native averaged 18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 3.3 steals and 2.1 blocks per game in her senior season at St. Francis Preparatory H.S. and played in the McDonald’s All-American Game.
“(Engstler is) a very explosive offensive player from all facets of the game,” Q told TNIAAM in April. “She’s going to help us and balance us and play multiple positions. You have Maeva (Djaldi-Tabdi) and Marie-Paule (Foppossi) coming. You have Kadiatou (Sissoko) coming in, too. She can play the same position. We’re adding full players with size to our roster. Same thing with (Kiara Lewis), she was the number one point guard out of the country coming out of high school.”
Just as the Orange welcomed a pair of international players onto its roster last season (Mangakahia - Australia, Strautmane - Latvia), four newcomers are natives of foreign soil. As Coach Q noted above, France shows strong representation on this roster with redshirt freshmen Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, Marie-Paule Fopposi, and true frosh Kadiatou Sissoko. In addition, Veronika Vorackova joins the team from the Czech Republic.
Hillsman brought in a top-10 recruiting class, ranking at No. 8 in the country according to ESPN. Engstler (No. 9 overall, No. 1 in New York state) and Sissoko (No. 11) are ranked as five-star recruits on ESPN’s 2018 HoopGurlz rankings. Last season, Strautmane (No. 22,) Djaldi-Tabdi (No. 27) and Finklea-Guity (No. 40) were tabbed as five-star recruits.
Seriously - everything. As mentioned before, all five starters (and then some) from last year’s team are returning.
Point guard Tiana Mangakahia is coming off a record-breaking season and is already projected to do damage this season. Mangakahia was named one of 20 finalists on the 2019 Nancy Liberman Award watch list as the nation’s top point guard after leading the Orange in points (17.5) and assists (9.8) per game last season. She was also named to the 2018-19 Preseason All-ACC Team.
Much like her good friend Tiana, redshirt senior guard/forward Miranda Drummond was named to a preseason watch list. She was recognized as one of 20 finalists on the 2019 Cheryl Miller Award watch list last week, which is given to the top small forwards in the country. Drummond averaged 14.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season while being the Orange’s top sharpshooter. She led the team in three-pointers made (84) and three-point field goal percentage (40.2%).
Durable sophomores Amaya Finklea-Guity and Digna Strautmane return to lead the Orange frontcourt in 2018-19. Both played in every game last season. Finklea-Guity averaged 6.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, while Strautmane posted 10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Gabrielle Cooper, the most tenured starter in in the rotation, knocked down 34.3% of three-point shots and averaged just over 10 points last season. She was the third leading scorer behind Mangakahia and Drummond.
The Orange have shot creators to come off the bench. Aside from likely aforementioned incoming reserves Emily Engstler, Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, Marie-Paule Fopposi, and Kadiatou Sissoko, returning leading bench scorer Isis Young returns for her senior season. Young averaged 6.7 points and made 46 three-pointers (30.5%) last season. Senior Raven Fox returns after averaging 2.9 points and 2.8 rebounds last season. The Orange should usher in a more experienced, deeper roster into 2018.
The Outlook for No. 18
Syracuse is one of six ACC teams to appear in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll. The Orange (No. 18) are joined by defending National Champion Notre Dame (1), Louisville (5), NC State (17), Duke (21) and Miami (25) in the poll. Syracuse was projected to finish third in the ACC, via the Blue Ribbon Panel and the Coaches’ panel, behind Notre Dame and Louisville.
Syracuse will face its first big test out of the gate. The second game of the season will take the Orange to Eugene, Ore. on November 10 to play the No. 3 Oregon Ducks. Four days later, the Orange will face No. 20 Texas A&M in White Plains, N.Y. Then, in Cancun, Mexico, Syracuse will face No. 15 DePaul. Make that three of Syracuse’s first seven games versus ranked opponents - all in a span of two weeks.
Conference play begins on January 3 in Clemson versus the Tigers. The home conference opener is January 13, when the Orange welcomes in North Carolina to the Carrier Dome. Syracuse faces three (currently) ranked opponents at home: Miami (25), NC State (17) and Notre Dame (1). The showdown versus the Irish is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on February 25.
Road conference games versus ranked opponents include No. 21 Duke (Jan. 27) and No. 5 Louisville (Feb. 7).