By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Syracuse women’s basketball coach Quentin Hillsman remembered looking out his office window and seeing the 2003 men’s basketball championship banner. He walked down a hallway of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, spoke with longtime coach Jim Boeheim about his zone, watched practices and thought the zone could work for his women’s team.
Hillsman continued to tweak the zone, and the payoff came this year as the Orange are set to make their first Final Four appearance in school history. Washington, also making its Final Four debut, has been preparing for the zone, a unique challenge they’ve only faced one other time this season.
The zone concept wasn’t part of Hillsman’s repertoire when he arrived at Syracuse 10 year ago. His players described him as someone who is superstitious and doesn’t like change, so it would take someone of Boeheim’s stature to convince Hillsman to change up his full-court, man-to-man pressure defense.
Hillsman said his zone isn’t a carbon copy of Boeheim’s 2-3 zone since the women’s team doesn’t have similar size and length. Both zones are similar in that they have a lot of the same fundamental defensive principles, like a defender not letting players get behind them; however, Hillsman likes to press and get out on the fast break after forcing a turnover or grabbing a rebound.
“[Syracuse is] controlled chaos,” said Hillsman, the first black male to coach a Final Four team since Cheyney’s Winthrop McGriff in 1984. “We want to play fast on defense. We want to play fast on offense. And [we want to] make our opponents uncomfortable. … It’s about our discipline, our poise and our toughness.”
In Syracuse’s locker room after Saturday’s practice, senior Cornelia Fondren’s face lit up when she talked about how the Orange celebrate a turnover almost as much as when they score a basket. They’ve forced their opponents into an average of 24.2 turnovers per game and have a turnover margin of plus-10.3; both are tops in the NCAA.
“Syracuse is a very good defensive team, very athletic, cause a lot of havoc in full court and half court,” Washington point guard Kelsey Plum said. “Their zone is tough. It’s kind of a run-and-gun jump zone, and they’re always trying to turn the ball over.”
Washington watched film of its November game against Syracuse prior to Saturday’s practice. The Huskies lost to then-No. 23 Syracuse, 66-62, in the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout on Nov. 27 in Las Vegas. The Orange led by as many as 21 points, and Washington outscored Syracuse by 10 in the fourth quarter to make the game competitive late. Syracuse junior center Briana Day was limited because of fouls, scoring 9 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in 18 minutes.
“We talked about that Vegas trip being the low in our season,” said Washington senior guard Alexus Atchley.
It was the only time Washington played against a zone this season, although head coach Mike Neighbors said playing in the defensive-minded Pac-12 forces teams to be creative offensively. He added the real challenge with Syracuse’s zone is making in-game adjustments.
“About the time you adjust, so does [Hillsman],” he said. “He’s a really end-game coach. He does not get the credit in our game for his ability to manage a game. … Every time you make an adjustment and figure something out, he’s got a counterpunch.”
The Huskies are the lowest seed to reach the Final Four since No. 7 seed Minnesota in 2004. They’re just the fourth team to make the Final Four with 10 or more losses.
Washington hasn’t been a beneficiary of teams clearing the way for them. The Huskies pulled off their own upsets, beating No. 2 Maryland and No. 3 Kentucky on their home floors and downing No. 4 Stanford in the Elite Eight.
Syracuse knocked off No. 1 South Carolina in the program’s first-ever Sweet 16 appearance.
Hillsman said preparation for the “explosive” and “physical” Washington team this weekend has been the same as any of Syracuse’s previous 36 games.
“Obviously, you try to make it seem like it’s any other game,” he said, “but it’s really not.”
Syracuse Orange (29-7)
G – Alexis Peterson (5-7, junior) 16.1 assists, 4.7 assists, 2.2 steals, .321 3-point percentage
G – Brianna Butler (5-11, senior) 13.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, .312 3-point percentage
G – Brittney Sykes (5-9, redshirt junior) 10 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.1 steals
F – Isabella Slim (6-0, junior) 2 rebounds, 1.4 points
C – Briana Day (6-4, junior) 10 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks
Washington Huskies (26-10)
G – Kelsey Plum (5-8, junior) 26.2 points, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals .338 3-point percentage
G – Alexus Atchley (5-9, senior) 5.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, .407 3-point percentage
F – Talia Walton (6-2, redshirt senior) 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, .341 3-point percentage
F – Chantel Osahor (6-2, junior) 11.2 rebounds, 10.3 points, 3.4 assists, .361 3-point percentage
F – Katie Collier (6-3, redshirt junior) 6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks