An outsider’s opinion at a glance in October and November was probably that the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team was young, inexperienced and untested. Therefore, the projection they’d finish around seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference was perceived as feasible. Syracuse ultimately finished eighth in the conference with a 22-9 overall record and 10-6 within the ACC.
“Everyone thought this was going to be a really big, down year for us,” ‘Cuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said on Tuesday. “We lost 12 players in two years, and those 12 players were on a (National) Championship Game team.”
A Surprising Season
The inexperience was definitely there early in the season. Four new starters were integrated and pressed to get ready for two of their first five games against Power Five teams – the Big Ten’s Wisconsin and the SEC’s Vanderbilt – in the Paradise Jam relocated to Washington, D.C. The young Syracuse team grinded out a three-point win versus the Badgers and turned around the next day to beat the Commodores by six.
Syracuse began to take off from that point.
The Orange worked their way into the Top 25 in the Coaches’ Poll before the non-conference schedule ended. They started the season 11-0 – its best opening stretch since going 12-0 to begin the 2009-10 season. After that hot start, the Orange began to sweat a bit.
Two of the next three games would be against top-five opponents. Not just any top-five opponents — but the two eventual National Championship Game finalists in Mississippi State and Notre Dame. The Orange’s first test was a Duel in the Desert against No. 5/3 Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs won by nine, and Notre Dame handled Syracuse by 15.
Syracuse finished its regular season on a five-game winning streak. One of those wins was against No. 17 Duke in the Carrier Dome. Orange point guard Tiana Mangakahia noted that it was one of the heights of the season.
“The crowd was into it, and it was a close game,” she said. “After that game, I was really happy. That’s the reason why I play.”
Coach Q emphasized the Duke game as a point of a greater importance to the season: the winning streak.
“We knew we needed all five of those games to make sure we were in the (NCAA) Tournament,” Q said. “When the brackets came out, we were safely in, which really proved we needed those last five games to be safely in. To win at Carolina and to beat Duke in that stretch, it was huge. We approached that as one big game.”
Syracuse having so many unknowns to work out at the beginning of the season gave a level of controlled uncertainty. On one hand, SU could have struggled with getting new players acclimated to Hillsman’s fast-paced system, and the tides of the ACC – arguably the best conference in women’s college basketball. On the other, Syracuse could have surprised everyone and made another run to the Final Four (okay, realistically, lets give them a 3- or 4-seed and see what happens). You get the point. It turns out that Syracuse did something in between those marks.
The individual successes of Mangakahia, who was a finalist for the 2018 Nancy Lieberman Award, and of freshman newcomers Amaya Finklea-Guity and Digna Strautmane, set up a nice core for Coach Q to work with for the next couple of seasons. Miranda Drummond and Isis Young proved to be capable spot shooters from beyond the arc, and they will have one more season to make that impact as seniors.
What sticks out is the amount of depth on next season’s Syracuse roster should be far greater than the depth that Q had to work with this season. Departing the Orange are Jasmine Nwajei, Abby Grant, and Marisa Romeo – Nwajei being the only of the three to play consistent bench minutes, along with Young, Chelayne Bailey, and Raven Fox. Young and Fox will be back, but Syracuse is adding a load of talent to its 2018-19 roster.
Emily Engstler earned New York State Player of the Year honors in mid-March. The 2018 Syracuse commit lists as a 6-foot-2 wing, and the excitement for her presence next season in Syracuse is very real.
“She’s a very explosive offensive player from all facets of the game,” Hillsman said. “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.”
Adding recruits like Sissoko, Engstler, and point guard Taleah Washington — plus Ohio State transfer Lewis -- to an already established core could accelerate the developments of Mangakahia, Finklea-Guity, and Strautmane for next season and beyond.
With certainty, there is a lot to look forward to in Syracuse in 2018.
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Corey Crisan is the Orange Women’s Basketball reporter for TNIAAM. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan for coverage.