Young stars step up in hard-fought SU victory over Georgia Tech

The usual suspects -- sophomores Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes -- propelled the Orange to victory, but the play of freshman Alexis Peterson helped secure the win.

After an embarrassing 33-point home loss to Duke last week, coach Quentin Hillsman wanted to know if his team was tough enough to survive in the rugged ACC. On Sunday against Georgia Tech, he found his answer.

Brianna Butler caught fire in the second half, pouring in a team-high 23 points and career-high seven three-pointers, and Brittney Sykes took over down the stretch as Syracuse (12-4, 1-2 ACC) came back for a gritty 76-70 win on a day where not much went its way for much of the game. The Orange got off to a slow start, missing several good looks when they managed to handle Georgia Tech’s (11-5, 1-2 ACC) full-court pressure. Butler and Sykes combined for just 4-for-16 in the first half, including 1-for-9 from inside the arc, and there wasn’t much Hillsman could do besides shake his head.

“They’re a physical team, they’re going to push tempo and make you play,” Hillsman said of Georgia Tech. “They love to press, and they do a great job of playing their style of play.”

The Orange trailed for much of the first 20 minutes, as the Yellow Jackets penetrated the 2-3 zone with relative ease, particularly guards Tyaunna Marshall and Dawnn Maye, who combined for 18 of their team’s 34 first-half points. The zone also left Syracuse vulnerable on the glass, and Georgia Tech — one of the best rebounding teams in the conference, out-rebounding 14 of its 15 opponents heading into the day — took advantage with seven offensive rebounds for six second chance points.

The Yellow Jackets led much of the way, but a quick 10-3 run to close the half, capped by a Butler three at the buzzer, brought the Orange back within two and, most importantly, seemed to spark SU’s best shooter.

“I think in the first half I kind of beat myself,” said Butler, who was just 2-for-6 from deep and 2-for-11 overall before that final make. “When you’re missing shots it frustrates you, so I needed that before the half to give me some confidence.”

Georgia Tech managed to stay ahead in the opening minutes of the second half, as neither teamed seemed capable of getting stops in a game that turned into a track meet at times. With around 13 minutes left and his team down six, Hillsman went to the bench hoping for something, anything that could flip the switch for his team.

That something came from a somewhat surprising source— freshman point guard Alexis Peterson. Peterson scored a quick six points, including an acrobatic and-one off the glass to bring the Orange back within five. She repeatedly beat Tech’s guards off the dribble, getting into the lane with ease and finishing or finding the open player. And once the defense collapsed, Syracuse’s shooters finally woke up.

“She settled us down,” Hillsman said. “I told you guys on media day, once she gets confidence she’ll be an excellent basketball player for us. She got some things to the basket, and that opened up Brianna on the wings. She was on a roll, so I decided to stick with her.”

In all, Peterson put in seven points on 3-4 shooting with an assist and three rebounds in 15 second-half minutes. She checked in at the 14:33 mark with the Orange down three points, and by the time she left with 18 seconds left, Syracuse had secured the win.

“It’s a great thing for our team, having people step up like that,”Butler said. “We lost a couple of seniors last year, so we need people to lead the team and play with poise and she helped us out today.”

The freshman was the catalyst, but it was Sykes — only a sophomore, but the team’s emotional leader already — who put it away. She was far more aggressive in the second half, using her physicality in the paint and athleticism in transition to hit three big shots down the stretch.

“Coach got on me in the first half for being too calm, he knew that we had to go up and down and score and that they weren’t going to let up,” Sykes said. “I realized that my team needed me and I had to step up.”

It was the kind of win that can prove a lot to a team — the Orange had to find an extra gear that they hadn’t found in their first two ACC games, and they managed to will enough stops down the stretch to pull out a win over a tough team. So what does Hillsman think of that toughness question now?

He stopped and smiled for a second.

“Tough,” he said. “Very tough kids.”

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.