Women's basketball wins 100th game in Carrier Dome

Brittney Sykes scored a career-high 31 points in SU's 73-48 victory over Virginia Tech.

The game had been a formality for the last 20 minutes, but there Brittney Sykes was — still on the court, directing traffic and barking out commands even as the ball swung to the other side of the floor. As the shot clock wound down and Syracuse was close to wasting a meaningless possession, she started to get impatient. She darted to the top of the key, asked for a screen, blew by a defender and hung in the lane for a layup — again.

As Syracuse’s leader, Sykes has had to respond to a lot of questions after tight games and tough losses this year. But coming off a brutal home blowout to Maryland last week, she decided to just give her answer right out of the gate.

On the night before her birthday, Sykes dominated from opening tip to final buzzer, pouring in a career-high 31 points — including 21 in the first half on just 11 shots — as the Orange (17-6, 6-4 ACC) ran away from overmatched Virginia Tech (11-11, 1-8 ACC) 73-48 Thursday night. It was the program’s 100th win at the Carrier Dome.

“Usually it takes me to the second half to realize what the defense is doing and how they’re trying to guard me,” Sykes said. “But my teammates trusted me and got me the ball in good spots.”

After a sloppy couple of minutes to open the game, full of turnovers and missed jumpers, Syracuse got aggressive off the dribble and never looked back. Out of its 43 first half points, 33 came from in the paint or at the foul line, as every Orange guard had no problem attacking and getting to the rim against athletically inferior defenders. And when they didn’t finish, the front court cleaned up the mess after VT’s defense shifted to help, picking up 16 offensive rebounds.

“We wanted to attack and make them guard us off the bounce,” head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “We didn’t want to get in our half-court stuff, we weren’t shooting a great percentage, so our transition and points in the paint were huge.”

But it was Sykes who set the tone on a night when nothing was falling from the outside, consistently putting her head down and going as soon as she saw an opening. After eight minutes, she’d already gone 5-of-7 for 12 of Syracuse’s 17 points, as a 21-7 run over 10 minutes of play broke the game open, leading to a 21-point halftime lead — a welcome change from the slow starts that have been a little too common for her this year.  She seemed to step on the court angry, and her attitude didn’t let up even after the Orange had turned the game into a blowout early in the second half.

“When Coach took me out, I looked up and saw I had 27 [her previous career high],” Sykes said. “I was praying he’d let me back in and get to 30.”

“Brittney was truly phenomenal tonight,” Hillsman said. “I keep telling her, when she plays that way she makes herself very hard to guard.”

Syracuse followed her lead and went for the throat early against the struggling Hokies, establishing itself as the faster, stronger and more talented team from the outset. SU seemed determined to put on a 40-minute blitz, pushing even after made baskets and pressing to force deflections and turnovers — 19 in all, leading to 25 points. VT had no answer for the length and speed the Orange zone threw at them, as Syracuse effectively sped them up and turned almost every possession into a scramble. Only freshman point guard Vanessa Panousis, who needed 15 shots to get her 13 points, seemed to have any confidence and decisiveness.

“I didn’t want to let us come out and take them lightly,” Hillsman said. “We just wanted to do a good job putting pressure on, force turnovers and get in transition. That was our game plan, and I think we stuck to it.”

Freshman Briana Day also continued to improve, showing the promise that made her an exciting recruit out of high school. She helped the Orange control the paint on both ends, corralling a team-high 12 rebounds — five on the offensive end — to go along with nine points and six blocks. Even when VT was able to break down the zone with an extra pass, the length of Day and Shakeya Leary made life difficult for the Hokies.

“Six blocks mean there weren’t a lot of fouls,” Day laughed. “I’m just trying to help my team any way I can, and maybe make coach a little happy.”

With a trip to No. 2 Notre Dame looming over the weekend, Hillsman was so determined not to let his team overlook the Hokies that he watched more film than he had for any game this year. Now that final hurdle has been cleared in emphatic fashion, Syracuse having won five out of six, and the Orange have another chance to slay an ACC giant — and solidify its case for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in the process.

They’ll almost certainly need Sykes at her best to do it, and Hillsman is intent on getting his star ready. What did he say in the locker room after her white-hot first half? He hardly even hesitates.

“I told her that she missed two major assignments and I had to call a timeout to take her out of the game,” he said. “She could’ve had 71, I’m not going to stop coaching her.”

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