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A final look at the 2020-21 Syracuse women’s basketball season

Let’s review and close the chapter on Coach Quentin Hillsman’s 15th season leading the Orange & White

NCAA Womens Basketball: Syracuse at Connecticut Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange women’s basketball team concluded its 49th all-time season last week, ending the year with a 15-9 overall record. Let’s review the highs and lows of this season and give final thoughts on the year.

The Highs

COVID-19 Battle

The 2019-20 season ended abruptly with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were a lot of questions leading up to the school year on whether leagues and schools would be able to safely put on a season. Some conferences opted out before the season started while some teams, including the ACC’s Virginia and Duke, opted out mid-year due to outbreaks within their programs. Syracuse dealt with two COVID-19 pauses, including a month-long break due to positive tests within the Orange team.

Whether you agree the season should have been held or not, the fact that the season was completed is an accomplishment for both the NCAA and universities. Barring any COVID issues, the NCAA will crown a Champion in just a few weeks. In a year with so many unknowns and lows, ending the season with a winner is a highlight in my book.

Tiana Mangakahia’s Return to the Court

In June 2019, Mangakahia was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer (Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma). She underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries through the 2019-20 season, sitting on the bench as an honorary coach. The NCAA approved Mangakahia’s Extension of Eligibility waiver in October of the following year, initiating her official comeback to the court.

Mangakahia picked up right where she left off, leading the nation in assists (145) and assists per game (7.3) in 2020-21. This season wasn’t all picture-perfect, as Mangakahia dealt with injuries that made her miss one regular season game (at Boston College, 12/20) and the entire ACC Tournament. Despite the injuries, the Australian native was still able to prove her talent and skills to the basketball community, earning a spot on the finalist list for the Nancy Lieberman Point Guard Award for the third straight season. She was also awarded All-ACC Honorable Mention honors.

Mangakahia leaves Syracuse as the all-time leader in career assists (736), the first to surpass 600 and 700 assists in program history, and the fastest player to score 1,000 career points. She earned multiple accolades in her three years, including two-time All-ACC First Team 2019 WBCA All-America Honorable Mention, Naismith & Wade Trophy Watch Lists, and 2020 Preseason All-ACC Team.

On March 26, Mangakahia officially submitted her name into the WNBA Draft. It is an end of an incredible era and I am excited to continue covering Mangakahia as a pro.

Freshmen Standouts Kamilla Cardoso and Priscilla Williams

When the starting line-up was announced for the home opener, I was shocked to see freshmen Kamilla Cardoso and Priscilla Williams listed and not veterans Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi and Amaya Finklea-Guity, who started in Game One. I questioned the decision until the game started and I understood exactly why Coach Q made that choice: they are really, really good.

Despite being newbies to the college level, Cardoso and Williams made their names known throughout the ACC. Williams averaged 8.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 21 games before suffering a season-ending upper-body injury in the ACC Tournament. She shot 37% from three during the season and earned ACC Freshman of the Week after going a perfect 9-9 from the field and 6-6 from three on Jan. 18 against Miami.

Cardoso, the highest-ranked recruit in program history (No. 5 overall), racked up multiple conference accolades for her breakout season, including ACC Freshman of the Year, Co-Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defensive Team, All-Freshman Team, and First Team All-ACC. The Brazil native also earned three-straight ACC Freshman of the Week awards during the year (Jan. 26, Feb. 1, Feb. 8). Cardoso was also named to the Lisa Leslie Center Award Watch List and the 2020 ACC Newcomer Watch List. In 24 games, Cardoso averaged 13.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest. She led the ACC in blocked shots (65) and blocks per game (2.7) throughout the season and was ranked in the top-15 nationally in field goal percentage (12th), blocked shots per game (13th), and total blocks (14th).

After seeing them ball out this season, I think it is safe to say that Cardoso and Williams could potentially be two of the best players in program history. On the ‘Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Podcast’ prior to the tournament, I made the prediction that Cardoso could win a National Player of the Year award at some point. If Syracuse can climb the ranks over the next few seasons, I can’t see why this wouldn’t happen.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Best Games

My pick for the best game this season is a tie between the Miami win in January and the South Dakota State victory in the NCAA Tournament.

After a 28-day break due to COVID-19 protocol, the Orange returned to the court and played their best offensive game of the season against Miami in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 17, 99-64. Williams was a perfect 9-9 from the field (6-6 from three) and led all scorers with a career-high of 26 points. Mangakahia tallied her first double-double of the season with 10 points (4-5) and 10 assists. Emily Engstler also tallied a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Cardoso (17 pts) and Digna Strautmane (12) also contributed double-figure scoring for the Orange. As a team, Syracuse tied a program-best 17 three’s and a season-high 28 assists. The 35-point win was the largest margin of victory in an ACC women’s basketball game this season.

The Orange played their best defensive game of the season against the No. 9-seed South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 on March 21. The team tallied 27 combined blocks and steals and forced 22 opponent turnovers to advance in a 72-55 win. All five ‘Cuse starters scored in double-figures in the win. Engstler led the team with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Strautmane also tallied a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Kiara Lewis (14 points), Cardoso (12), and Mangakahia (11) also contributed double-figure scoring in the win.

The Lows

Best Roster in Recent Years, but No Postseason Results

Midway through the season, I wrote an article about what is preventing the Orange from being a top-tier ACC squad. At the end of the year, I am still searching for those answers.

With the combination of seasoned veterans, a No. 4 freshmen recruiting class, and the comeback of Tiana Mangakahia, Syracuse Basketball was destined to reach new heights in 2020-21. On talent alone, the team is good enough to be ranked first or second in the conference and top-15 nationally. But, just like in previous years, the Orange continued to only be among the top 40 programs in the nation and towards the middle of the ACC.

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. But after their COVID pause, the Orange found themselves unranked and looking to prove the basketball community wrong. In interviews, you often heard players and Coach Q stating that this team has so much more to prove and that they deserve to be in the national conversation. This team had plenty of opportunities to showcase this elitism but came up short in games versus top-ranked opponents (Louisville twice, NC State, & UConn).

NCAA Womens Basketball: NC State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Emily Engstler.

If I wrote this article early last week, Engstler would have been a high point of this season. On Friday, Engstler announced that she would be entering the transfer portal. After such a promising year, Engstler leaving is a real low for Syracuse. One of my first articles with Nunes this offseason was about Engstler and how this would be the year she becomes a top ACC player. And that is exactly what happened.

Engstler earned ACC Co-Sixth Player of the Year for her stellar performance off the bench this season. She contributed 10.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 22 games. Engstler started in all five postseason games due to injuries with Mangakahia and Williams. In addition to conference sixth man of the year, the NYC native was named to the All-ACC Tournament Second Team and All-ACC Academic Team.

With the loss of Mangakahia and the rest of the seniors (if they do not come back), Engstler would have been the face of the Orange & White. Athletes transfer schools for numerous reasons, so I am not going to speculate on why she is leaving. I wish her all the best and hope she excels at her next school.

Syracuse v UConn Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Worst Games

Two games stand out to me: the Clemson overtime loss and the Florida State loss. You could, of course, make the argument that the UConn game was the worst, and that would be very fair as ‘Cuse did have its worst shooting percentage of the year (.281) and the 83-47 score was the worst margin of defeat for the Orange since 2014. I didn't include this game because the Huskies are the No. 1 team in the country and UConn in March is a scary beast Syracuse has never beat.

Starting with the Clemson game, Syracuse found themselves down 52-27 at halftime. The team shot 27.8% from the field and 15.4% from three in the opening quarters. ‘Cuse redeemed themselves in the second half, shooting 59.3% from the field and outscoring Clemson 43-18 in the final two quarters. The Orange tied the game at 70-all in the final minute of the fourth to force overtime. Clemson controlled the five extra minutes of play and defeated Syracuse, 77-86. Having to overcome large deficits in the second half was the Orange’s MO all season long, but this deficit & defeat hurt even more because the Tigers weren’t an NCAA Tournament team. Syracuse could have and should have beat Clemson.

In the Florida State game, we witnessed one of Syracuse’s worst shooting performances of the year in a 67-52 defeat. The team went 30.4% from the field and 17.4% from three, while allowing the Seminoles to shoot 43.9% from the field and 58.3% from three. Florida State held the advantage in almost every statistical category, including points off turnovers (16-10), rebounds (39-33), bench points (16-11), points in the paint (30-22), fast break points (6-3), steals (10-8), and assists (15-9). It was just an all-around bad loss for ‘Cuse and dropped them down in the ACC standings.

Overall Takeaways

It is too early to make a prediction about next season since there will likely be many more roster changes to come. However, I think that centering the team around Cardoso and finding consistency amongst the roster will be important takeaways from the 2020-21 season. Yes, Cardoso was a big part of this year’s scheme, but I still feel that she wasn’t used enough. Coach Q was committed to shooting three’s, even when the team wasn’t hitting them (which was often). Focusing on attacking inside instead of sharp shooting will be something to consider next season.

Talent and recruiting are clearly not the issue here. The past five recruiting classes were ranked Top 15 in the nation with numerous five-star recruits. But yet, there are no postseason accolades to show for it. The 2016 National Championship run was incredible, but how long do we hold on to that memory before we start expecting more from the program?

I strongly disagree with anyone who thinks Coach Q’s job is in jeopardy. In 15 years, Hillsman holds a 319-169 overall record, has not finished under .500 since his first season, and has made Syracuse a relevant basketball program. However, something clearly needs to be adjusted in Central New York. Having a roster full of top 10 recruits and bowing out of the Big Dance in the second round won’t work for much longer.

Best Moment of the Year

With five seconds left on the clock and down one point, freshman Kamilla Cardoso grabbed the offensive rebound off a missed Kiara Lewis three and made the layup at the buzzer to defeat Florida State in the quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament.