Pressed for a win, Orange ratchet up defense

Pressed for a win, Orange ratchet up defense

Syracuse forces 21 turnovers, the highest mark for the season, in Sunday's win over UMBC.
Published: December 8, 2019
UMBC didn't score more than 12 points after the first quarter in part to SU's press.
UMBC didn't score more than 12 points after the first quarter in part to SU's press.

It made sense for Syracuse to start the second quarter with two defenders pinned to the baseline. The Orange were only up a bucket, and with a three-game losing streak looming over the team, they couldn’t risk anything but tight defense.

The scrambles and steals popped up, the byproduct of any successful full-court press. But the press continued over-and-over again. The Orange didn’t stop when they rode a double-digit lead into the half. And it remained until SU ballooned its lead to 35 points and elected to unload its bench with five minutes left.

“We started off slow, but as the game goes on we just increase our energy and intensity,” freshman Teisha Hyman said. “That’s when the lead starts to grow.”

After a made basket, timeout or start of a quarter, Syracuse (5-4) kept a player on every UMBC (2-7) inbounder. If they got the ball out, the Orange sometimes doubled the ball-handler 80 feet from the basket. The result was 21 Retriever turnovers, the highest mark for SU this season, in a 82-48 win in the Carrier Dome. The press persisted for 35 minutes, culminating in a second half that featured just six UMBC field goals.

Taliah Washington guards an inbounder, part of the Orange's full court press.
Taliah Washington guards an inbounder, part of the Orange's full court press.

Head coach Quentin Hillsman’s defense has always been that way. Despite sizeable leads, the Orange won’t slow down and move directly into a zone. Sometimes, that generates easy opposing lay-ups and costly transition buckets. But against UMBC, it widened Syracuse’s blowout.

“We have players over six feet so,” said point guard Kiara Lewis. “That was an advantage we had on them.”

Hillsman came into Sunday’s matchup in a position he hadn’t been in six seasons, losers of three-straight. SU fell out of the Top 25 rankings after a 4-3 start, and before facing No. 24 Michigan on Dec. 5, Hillsman predicted they’d be back in the rankings next week.

An eight-point loss in Ann Arbor, Michigan, didn’t help his case. And 10 minutes into SU’s ninth game of the season, the struggles almost reappeared.

“We didn’t do much at practice, we’re just trying to get our legs back under us and recover,” Hillsman said, “so we didn’t come out real crisp.”

A successful press coincided with turnovers from Syracuse’s starting lineup, keeping UMBC close throughout the first half. After the first quarter break, which SU led 17-15, Taleah Washington pounced on a bounce pass to Retrievers forward Janee’a Summers feet from the baseline. After a scramble, the ball found Emily Engstler’s hands.

Later, Kiara Lewis intercepted a pair of passes before UMBC made it past half-court. The redshirt junior finished with four steals, her second highest total this season.

“Coach Q came in and told us we had 10 turnovers and they hadn’t even been pressing,” Lewis said. “So we had to take care of the ball. That was keeping them in the game.”

The Syracuse offense picked up inside as almost half of its point total (40) came from inside paint. UMBC still struggled to make halfway down the court in eight seconds. When they did, the Retrievers were slow in their sets as SU went under screens rather than over, Lewis said. Several times, UMBC was forced into a shot clock violation because it couldn’t find a shot.

Hillsman kept his core in to start the fourth despite a 27-point lead. The opening inbound was stolen by Lewis who found an open Hyman under the basket, part of her career-high 16 points.

Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillman's team snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday -- its first since the 2013-14 season.
Quentin Hillman has not coached during a three-game losing streak since the 2013-14 season.

SU put 12 players in on Sunday, including eight that played over 10 minutes. That kept Hillsman’s players fresh enough to continue the press throughout the game. That strategy, which he’s relied on in losses against Green Bay and Michigan, remedied a slow first quarter. But more than that, helped the Orange forget about a 4-4 start, he said.

“We’ve tested ourselves so no one in the country can look at this team and say, ‘They didn’t play anybody,’” Hillsman said. “They’re going to say the opposite.”