LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Leading by four with less than 13 minutes left, Syracuse lost leading scorer Brittney Sykes to a right knee injury and seemingly its chances for that elusive first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
Instead of folding, the sixth-seeded Orange (23-9) rallied after losing their star guard to beat Chattanooga 59-53 on Saturday.
Sykes had 13 points and 12 rebounds before grabbing her leg and screaming on a drive to the basket with 12:46 remaining. She laid for several minutes after coming down at the baseline, and Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman knelt beside her and cradled her head while whispering encouraging words in her ear.
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”I told her we aren’t here without you,” Hillsman said of his sophomore. ”You are the reason why we are here and no matter what outcome of the situation is, we love you and we thank you for us being here.”
Hillsman can also thank his team for keeping its composure late. The Orange used a 52-36 rebounding edge to stretch the lead to 10 with 2:33 left before withstanding a late Chattanooga rally featuring three 3-pointers from Taylor Hall.
The Orange hit 24 of 31 free throws to seal the victory that also snapped Chattanooga’s 25-game winning streak. Senior center Shakeya Leary made 7 of 8 from the line to finish with 15 points.
Syracuse didn’t celebrate its milestone win, partly because of losing Sykes but also because another challenge looms on Monday night against third-seeded and host Kentucky, which trounced Wright State 106-60 in the other first-round game. That’s not saying it wasn’t significant.
”This means a lot, not only for me, but it’s about the school and the program,” Leary said. ”I think this amazing and I’m just excited.”
Brianna Butler was just 2 of 11 from the floor but hit 9 of 10 free throws for 13 points. Nine points came after Sykes went down.
”We were definitely a little shook and we immediately brought (the team) together and said a prayer for her,” Butler said of losing her classmate. ”We just came out with the mindset that we have to win this game for Brittney and everyone needs to step up the intensity.”
Chattanooga (29-4) hit just 4 of 14 from the foul line. Hall led the Lady Mocs with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
”Losing is never fun, but it’s even more frustrating whenever it’s things such as missed free throws, not getting rebounds, things that we should be able to control each day,” Hall said. ”That makes it a little bit harder to swallow.”
Though it appeared Sykes’ serious injury would keep her out against Kentucky, Hillsman tried to stay positive.
”It’s one of those things where you just go and hope the best for this kid,” he said. ”We hope she’s OK. Right now, she’s back there smiling and texting, so maybe she’s alright. . We’ll find out later.”
Hall’s final 3-pointer cut the Orange’s lead to 57-53 with 13 seconds left. Leary sank two free throws four seconds later for the final margin.
Syracuse’s strong foul shooting offset its 17-of-54 performance (32 percent) from the field. Chattanooga also struggled to make shots, hitting just 21 of 61 (34 percent).
”Our offensive rebounds became our offense,” Hillsman said.
Chattanooga’s Faith Dupree hit her second jumper in the first two minutes of the second half to bring the Lady Mocs within 30-28, the closest they came the rest of the game.
Tough defense and lackluster shooting marked the first half and both teams made below 36 percent. Syracuse hit 2 of 13 attempts (15 percent) from behind the arc while Chattanooga was 1 of 9 (11 percent) from long range.
While Hillsman called the win ”tremendous,” the postgame mood was subdued not only because of Sykes’ possible absence, but also because he prepared his team to expect a second tournament game.
”It’s funny because you have these interviews and I think a lot of people shy away from saying, `I expect to win. …,”’ Hillsman said.
”It wasn’t a big celebration for the win because we expected to win the basketball game. It’s not being arrogant or being cocky. You’ve got to go in there and expect to win the basketball game. It is tough when you lose a player. I don’t know exactly what’s going on so it’s mixed emotions.”