FSU blows past Syracuse in 83-59 win

The Seminoles' Natasha Howard scored a school-record 40 points as the Orange lost its second straight game Thursday night.

Even after Syracuse (17-6, 6-6 ACC) lost by 37 points to Notre Dame on Feb. 9, the Orange looked to be in prime position for a run at a tournament birth with soft schedule ahead. But after another blowout loss, this time at home against Florida State, it’ll be hard not to rethink that idea now.

Natasha Howard torched the short-handed Orange for a school-record 40 points as Florida State (17-7, 5-6 ACC) continued its resurgence, cruising to an 83-59 win at the Carrier Dome Thursday night. Syracuse now sits precariously at 6-6 in the best conference in the country with some work to do down the stretch — not to mention concerns over a bruised psyche after consecutive big losses.

“We can’t forfeit the thing,” head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “That’s the good thing about sports: you can’t not show up. And we’ll show up and we’ll play hard. We’ll get back tomorrow, figure some things out, and we have a great opportunity to go out and win these last games.”

Syracuse actually came out strong — controlling tempo, pressing and being aggressive on offense despite being down its two primary point guards. Both Rachel Coffey and Cornelia Fondren, starters and key contributors, were ruled out prior to game time due to illness. That left the burden on freshman Alexis Peterson, who had looked promising in brief spurts this season, and she started with remarkable poise.

A Brianna Butler fast break three-pointer capped a 9-0 run to open the contest, as the Orange zone managed to make life difficult on the interior for the Seminoles and Syracuse got the looks it wanted in transition.

From there, though, it was all Seminoles in every phase of the game. Florida State raised SU’s 9-0 run with a quick 11-0 run of its own and never looked back, getting some surprising help from its shooters off of quick and decisive ball movement against the zone. Despite shooting just 28 percent from behind the arc heading into the game, FSU went 6-of-9 in the first half and 8-of-12 on the night, including a combined 6-of-7 from reserve guards Emiah Bingley and Lauren Coleman. That success seemed to catch Hillsman and the Orange off-guard.

“We wanted to play inside-out and defend that way,” Hillsman said. “They were making only five threes per game coming in. Tonight they shot 66 percent. That’s pretty good.”

From there, the Syracuse defense was stretched, and Howard went to work. The senior, recently put on the Wade Trophy watch list, did it all — grabbing rebounds and finishing with a soft touch around the rim. She had better position and worked harder than the Orange all night, getting to the line 15 times and hitting 12, despite being a 60 percent foul shooter coming in. She only needed 19 shots to hit her record point total.

“Natasha is one of the favorite players I’ve ever coached,” Florida State head coach Sue Semrau said. “For her to have an opportunity to reach this milestone isn’t because she was lucky — it’s because the type of work ethic she has, and she’ll leave a mark on FSU not because she scored more points than anyone in a single game but because of what she brings to us every single day.”

Florida State has been a puzzling team all year — it won 14 of its first 15, almost beating Louisville on its home floor, before dropping six of seven. But the good ‘Noles showed up Thursday night, physically dominating the action for 40 minutes and putting the game away with easy transition buckets before Syracuse could mount a comeback early in the second half.

“People have a hard time believing that a coach would say losing is a good thing, but I think for us it opened up the eyes of our young players,” Semrau said. “Natasha has been telling our younger guys that it’s hard, but until they get there and they really feel it I don’t think they know just how hard it is and what you have to go through to win in the ACC.”

Syracuse is now feeling that grind as well, staring at a crossroads of sorts after its nice winning streak being demonstrably halted. Still, four eminently winnable games remain against teams that are a combined 14-32 in conference this year. And after what Hillsman deemed a “shoddy” week of practice — Coffey and Fondren were in and out, as was Butler, who tweaked her ankle during the Notre Dame game — the focus seems to be on simply wiping the slate clean and moving on.

“In basketball, the greatest thing you can have is short-term memory,” said sophomore guard Brittney Sykes, the team’s emotional leader, who struggled and spent much of the second half stewing on the bench as the ‘Noles ran up the score. “So to lose to Notre Dame, lose to FSU at home, you learn from your mistakes and try not to make them again. Short-term memory, on to the next game.”

Luckily for the Orange, the ACC never sleeps. The Thursday-to-Sunday conference turnaround means SU has no choice but to use that short-term memory as a trip to Boston College awaits. 

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