The circumstance of losing in a conference tournament is one that should not define the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team, especially when that conference is the toughest in women’s college basketball and the loss came to the defending national champions.
After Syracuse lost to No. 1 seed Notre Dame on Saturday, there is not only plenty of action to look forward to, but there is still anticipation that the Orange can make a run deep into the women’s NCAA tournament.
Entering Saturday’s conference semifinals, Syracuse (24-8) was projected as a No. 3 seed in the Portland, Ore. region by ESPN’s Charlie Creme. After consistently being just on the outside for a coveted and competitive top-16 seed, the No. 18 Orange solidified their bid by taking down No. 16 Miami, 92-85, on Friday to advance to the ACC semifinals.
(Reminder: Teams who earn 1-4 seeds in the women’s NCAA tournament also act as host sites for the first two rounds of the tournament, until the Sweet 16.)
That home cooking could be *finger kiss* molto delizioso for the Orange if their merit as a top-16 seed is retained. Syracuse finished 10-3 at the Carrier Dome in the regular season, including a 5-3 mark versus ACC foes. Aptly enough, Syracuse finished 8-1 in neutral site games, meaning 75% of Syracuse’s wins were earned outside of the true home or road environment. This Syracuse team is built for a setting that tournament season provides — it is a team with depth in its frontcourt, with a star player in Tiana Mangakahia, and with an experienced coaching staff that has taken this same program to a national championship appearance in recent memory.
: Tiana went off in yesterday’s quarterfinal against #16 Miami— 'Cuse Women's Hoops (@CuseWBB) March 9, 2019
We’re back in action today at noon vs. #4 Notre Dame in the semifinals. Watch live on ESPNU pic.twitter.com/i7vF4twbis
That said, Syracuse does have a pair of issues to monitor before trekking to a TBD site (unofficially back to Syracuse) for at least one tournament game:
- Mangakahia fell awkwardly on her right knee after a layup attempt in Saturday’s fourth quarter versus Notre Dame. While the Irish blew out the Orange, Mangakahia did not return to the game. The good news, however, is that she did not go to the locker room or receive immediate treatment while sitting on the bench. Assuming rest and the signs from Saturday, Tiana should be fine for the NCAA tournament.
- Forward Emily Engstler did not participate in the ACC tournament and has not played since February 25 versus Notre Dame. Head coach Quentin Hillsman told Syracuse.com and other media outlets Engstler “hasn’t done the things that she needs to do to be a student-athlete.” The Syracuse.com report says Engstler “will likely” return for the NCAA Tournament, but if for what ever reason she does not, it is a continued hit to the depth in Syracuse’s frontcourt. Engstler is averaging 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in her freshman season.
Syracuse’s loss to Notre Dame should be taken with a grain of salt. The Orange have been competitive against some of the best teams in the country, netting a 5-7 record versus ranked teams. Add into that the four matchups versus top-five ranked teams — three of which (Louisville, Notre Dame twice) reside in ‘Cuse’s own conference, and the fourth being No. 3 Oregon, who the Orange lost by just two points to in Eugene. While the record versus such teams may not look attractive, the fact that the Orange have been trialed with difficult games sprinkled into its schedule from the start of the season merits some value into March.
Speaking of Saturday’s loss, it is not believed that the Orange will drop drastically in the rankings, or slip out of a top-16 seed. Not saying it will not happen, because it is not impossible. SU running into defending National Champion Notre Dame, who has five potential WNBA draft picks on its roster, twice in less than two weeks is not hurtful, but, rather, it could be helpful.
Playing in the ACC has its advantages. Being the fifth ranked team in any other conference could mean mediocrity. In the ACC, and in Syracuse’s case, it means a plethora of five-star recruits, a pool of international talent, and a pair of potential WNBA draft picks (Tiana, Miranda Drummond) — all captained by the winningest head coach in program history and supported by a deep second unit of Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, Isis Young, and others. In summary, despite falling in the ACC tournament semis, the Orange are still a serious threat to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
There is no reason to spark validity into Syracuse’s case as a national title contender. The perception is already there. Of course, we will not know matchups until over a week from now, but Syracuse will undoubted be favored in which ever opponent they are faced with, especially if the basketball is being dribbled in the Carrier Dome. Do not be discouraged by the loss to Notre Dame. ‘Cuse is playing some of its best inside and out basketball this season, and they have not lost to a non-Notre Dame team in nearly a calendar month (Feb. 13 versus No. 12 North Carolina State).
The Orange have surged back into the top-16, and most recently to No. 11 (hence, a No. 3 seed projection) after upsetting Miami. The Orange have a unique opportunity to make a run to the Sweet 16, assuming they win their winnable home games. Not to knock (based on Creme’s projections) UCLA, Indiana, or Maine, but they are not Notre Dame, Louisville, or even NC State.
It will not take a national championship victory to credit Syracuse with a “successful” season. Getting to the Sweet 16 would be a two-game extension from when the Orange lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season as a No. 8 seed. They have a legitimate shot at doing that, and causing further damage in the 2019 tournament.