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Where Syracuse women’s basketball stands heading into the NCAA Tournament

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With Selection Monday just days away, let’s take a look at where Coach Q and his squad stand heading into the tournament. 

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NCAA Womens Basketball: Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament - Louisville vs Syracuse Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

With the NCAA Tournament fast approaching, let’s recap the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team’s season so far and what to watch for during March Madness.

Regular Season Rewind

The Orange went 12-7 overall, 8-1 at home, and 9-7 in Atlantic Coast Conference play during the regular season. Syracuse started the year ranked, earning a spot as high as No. 18 in the AP Top 25 Poll and No. 16 in the USA Today Coaches Poll in the third week of the season. ‘Cuse dropped out of the polls in Week 10 of the season.

To start the season, Syracuse swept their shortened non-conference schedule with wins over Stony Brook (50-39), Lincoln (90-39), and Penn State (82-72). The Lincoln game was played in the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center after droplets of water were spotted on the Carrier Dome court. Read more about that eventful game here.

The team opened ACC play with a strong 69-58 win at Miami, but followed the victory up with their first loss of the season at North Carolina, 68-92. Syracuse traveled back up North to capture another conference win at Boston College, 83-70.

On Dec. 27, a positive COVID-19 test was confirmed within the Syracuse program. The Orange were forced to cancel and postpone multiple games due to the team quarantining. In addition to these changes, Duke and Virginia chose to opt-out of the season midway through the year, forcing more schedule changes for Syracuse.

The Orange finally returned to the court on Jan. 17, where they played arguably their basketball of the season against Miami in a 99-64 win. Priscilla Williams was named ACC Freshman of the Week after shooting 9-9 from the floor and 6-6 from three versus the Hurricanes.

The following game, ‘Cuse redeemed their lone-loss of the season versus UNC with a win against the Tar Heels at home, 88-76. Syracuse had its biggest test of the season up-next, traveling to then-ranked No. 1 Louisville. The Orange came close, but were unable to complete the upset in a 54-67 loss. ‘Cuse followed up the Louisville defeat with another loss at Clemson (77-86 OT). Kamilla Cardoso was named ACC Freshman of the Week for her performance that week, averaging 11.7 points and 11.0 rebounds in those three games.

Syracuse got back in the win column with two straight victories against Pittsburgh (80-57) and Notre Dame (81-69). Cardoso was once again named conference Freshman of the Week for averaging 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.5 blocks in the two wins.

The Orange suffered a road loss to Georgia Tech (63-76), but answered the defeat with wins over Wake Forest (85-78) and Pitt (71-67). For the third straight week, Cardoso was named ACC Freshman of the Week for averaging 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in three games.

Syracuse fell to Florida State on the road, 52-67. The team was scheduled to play then-ranked No. 3 Louisville again and Notre Dame, but both games were canceled due to positive COVID-19 test in the opponents’ programs.

After a week-long break, the Orange returned to the court and were defeated by Virginia Tech in a 68-76 loss. Syracuse defeated Boston College the following game (92-75) and ended the season with a 61-68 loss to then-ranked No. 2 NC State.

At the end of the season, four Orange players were honored with ACC season awards. Cardoso racked up multiple accolades, including Freshman of the Year, Co-Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defensive Team, All-Freshman Team, and First Team All-ACC. Emily Engstler earned Co-Sixth Player of the Year, while Tiana Mangakahia and Kiara Lewis were named to the All-ACC Honorable Mention Teams.

ACC Tournament Run

‘Cuse earned the fifth seed in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. The tournament took place at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Orange’s spot gave them an automatic bye into the second round of play.

Prior to tip of the Syracuse/Boston College second round contest, the Orange announced that they would be without Tiana Mangakahia (lower-body injury) and Taleah Washington, Kiara Fisher, Khamya McNeal, and Faith Blackstone (violation of team rules) for the entire tournament. All five players are expected to be back for the NCAA Tournament.

Emily Engstler started in Mangakahia’s place through the weekend. Despite the changes, ‘Cuse was able to overcome and defeat BC 67-61 to advance. During the second quarter of the quarterfinal match-up between Syracuse and Florida State, Priscilla Williams left the game on a stretcher with an upper-body injury. She did not return the rest of the tournament and there is no current update on her playing status. The Orange went on to beat the Seminoles with a Cardoso buzzer-beater (68-67). ‘Cuse earned a re-match with No. 5 Louisville in the semifinals, but were once again unable to overcome the Cardinals (59-72).

Engstler earned All-Tournament Second Team accolades after averaging a double-double in the tournament with 13 points and 10 rebounds in three starts. She also made an incredible, half court buzzer-beating shot to bring the Orange within one score at the end of the third quarter versus FSU. The shot earned the No. 2 spot on SportsCenter’s Top-10 Plays and No. 3 on the NCAAW’s Top Plays of the Week.

NCAA Tourney Prediction

Seeding

Syracuse looks to advance to their 12th all-time and eighth straight NCAA Tournament (2013-19, 2020 not included). ‘Cuse is currently projected as an eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament from ESPN’s Bracketology by Charlie Creme.

Syracuse is likely to stay as an eighth seed but could potentially move up one based on their great performance in the ACC Tournament despite the short bench. The Orange started the season predicted as a sixth seed. Talent-wise, they should be there but will likely not move up two spots over the weekend.

Emily Engstler’s Performance

Emily Engstler is having an outstanding year. She played the entire regular season off the tech and excelled. In the ACC Tournament, the New York native was thrown into the starting lineup and was still able to excel. Engstler’s performance this March will likely be the X-Factor in whether the Orange make it to weekend 2 of the tournament.

Kamilla Cardoso Avoiding Freshman Wall

Cardoso has had a quiet few weeks compared to her performance at the beginning of the season. In all fairness, teams are starting to figure out how to guard her and force her to foul. Cardoso is one of the best players in the nation. A key for her this March will be to avoid the freshman wall and stay focused on what she does best: being an athletic, 6’7 player who can block and score.

Injury Report

After defeating breast cancer and making the comeback of the year, Mangakahia has caught the injury bug. Though Syracuse may have advanced to the ACC Tournament Finals if Mangakahia played, a 100% Tiana in NCAA’s is much more important than a 75% Tiana in ACC’s.

There is no word yet on whether Williams will be back in the lineup for March Madness. It would be an unfortunate end to a breakout freshman season for Williams. On the bright side, if you look for those, Engstler fits nicely in the starting lineup.

What is preventing Syracuse from being a top-tier team?

Earlier this season, I wrote an article on what is preventing Syracuse from being in the conversations for conference champion and the national title. I previously stated:

“Syracuse is talented enough to be ranked first or second in the conference and top-15 nationally. But once again, the Orange continue to only be among the top 40 programs in women’s basketball, and toward the middle of the ACC.”

Inconsistency, turnovers, and the weird COVID year are what I chalk this team’s barriers to be. Will being in a bubble help alleviate some of these issues? Or, will these issues continue to plague an extremely talented roster?

Final Prediction: As a fan, I want to say Elite 8. But as a beat writer, I am going with Sweet 16.

The 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship will be held in San Antonio, Texas. A limited number of fans will be allowed with a capacity of up to 17% from the Sweet Sixteen through the Final Four. The committee will announce the bracket at 7 p.m. EST on Selection Monday, March 15 on ESPN.