Last season, the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball program bid farewell to five seniors who made their marks on a developing culture. Two of those players went drafted into the WNBA, the first time two ‘Cuse women’s hoops stars were drafted in the same class.
Experienced talent has been a constant on head coach Quentin Hillsman’s roster over the past few years, but this season’s ACC contenders brings something new to the table. The 2016 National Championship appearance featured 10 juniors and seniors on the roster. Now, as Syracuse seeks its first ever ACC Tournament title and its first conference tournament championship since 1985 (!), it brings a touch of youth and inexperience to the table.
Some of that “inexperience” was rewarded on Tuesday.
Congrats to our All-ACC honorees! @Tianamanga earned First Team accolades while @dignucis8 and @AmayaFinklea were tabbed to the All-Freshman Team!— 'Cuse Women's Hoops (@CuseWBB) February 27, 2018
Read more: https://t.co/3fmh3SusVr pic.twitter.com/MpyVcZoems
After entering the ACC record books as the new clubhouse leader in single-season assists, Orange point guard Tiana Mangakahia earned first team All-ACC recognition from both the media and the coaches. In addition, forwards Digna Strautmane and Amaya Finklea-Guity were named to the All-ACC Freshman team by the coaches. The media selected Strautmane, but not Finklea-Guity, to its roster.
This is the third straight season that a Syracuse point guard as named to the All-ACC team. Former point guard Alexis Peterson was named to the conference’s first team in 2017 and in 2016.
This is also the second season in a row that at least one ‘Cuse player is represented on the All-ACC Freshman team. Last season, Orange guard Gabrielle Cooper was selected to the team.
Now, Syracuse brings seven juniors and seniors into the fold. Don’t let the lack of experience on the court fool you. They still have a head coach with pedigree and championship experience.
“It’s about knowing what to expect,” Hillsman said regarding preparations for the ACC tournament. “We know how to game prep for these things. That’s where our experience comes in, as a staff. Us understanding what to do and at what times.”
No. 8 Syracuse (22-7, 10-6 ACC) has a shot at avenging at least one loss as the ACC Tournament is lined up. The Orange will play against No. 9 Virginia Tech in the second round on Sunday. In its first bout with the Hokies this season on February 1, Syracuse lost, 73-64.
“A little bit of vengeance in (this coming game),” Orange guard Miranda Drummond said after Monday’s walkthrough. “It was a bad loss for us. We’re definitely going to come out stronger and with more energy for this... We need this win, and I’m glad we get a second chance to play them again.”
“We love revenge,” Orange guard Gabrielle Cooper said. “We’re going to bring our best, and we won’t lose.”
“We know that we can beat any team as long as we do what we need to do,” Orange point guard Tiana Mangakahia said.
One of the keys to beating Virginia Tech, and the prospects of facing against No. 1 Louisville in the quarterfinals on Friday, will be sophomore guard Gabrielle Cooper.
Though Miranda Drummond is a junior, she sat out last season as a redshirt after transferring from St. Bonaventure. Cooper is the only Orange starter to log minutes in the 2016-2017 season. While she is just a sophomore, Cooper technically has the most on-court postseason experience.
“The regular season is over, (so) nothing is promised,” Cooper said. “We don’t want to go home after one or two games. We know that if we want to go on and continue playing, that we have to kick it up, play together, play smarter, and play wiser.”
“(Cooper) is a good avenue for (the players) to explore,” Coach Q said. “She’s able to keep us afloat in situations on the floor, and she is able to keep us going.”
Syracuse’s first matchup with the Hokies was a forgettable one. In a game the Orange likely should have won, Syracuse shot just 30.8% from the field and a season-worst 18.6% from three-point range. Mangakahia and forward Digna Strautmane combined for 39 of the team’s 64 points, including Strautmane’s 20 points.
“We have to be able to close out on the shooters and not give them three point shots,” Q said. “They did a really good job of spreading us out and playing off the bounce. We have to guard the ball, close out on shooters, and not give them rhythm jump-shots.”
Syracuse has won five games in a row, including a comeback win over Wake Forest and an upset over No. 17 Duke. In short — they’re confident.
“Coach Q talked about how these five wins were one big game,” Cooper said. “Now, we’re going to go to the postseason with a little more confidence.”
“Beating Duke and having those five straight wins, especially on the road... those wins help us come together more and realize how much we all need each other to contribute,” Mangakahia said.
Syracuse and Virginia tech tip at 2:00 p.m. from Greensboro on Thursday.