It's been almost two years since Syracuse lost to powerful Connecticut in the women's national championship game, and coach Quentin Hillsman is trying to recapture some of the magic that produced a program-record 30 victories in that breakthrough season.
Fielding one of the more inexperienced teams in the nation this season has made it an uphill climb. There's no Alexis Peterson or Brittney Sykes to lean on anymore.
"It's just our youth," Hillsman said Friday. "We have 10 newcomers. That'll do it alone."
Syracuse (14-5, 2-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), picked to finish seventh in the ACC in the preseason, won its first 11 games in the nonconference portion of the schedule and was at the cusp of breaking into the AP Top 25 before a late-December swoon on the road. Losses at then-No. 5 Mississippi State (76-65), then-No. 2 Notre Dame (87-72), and Virginia (68-63) put the brakes on that solid start.
"It's tough, but you've got to get the team to play hard," Hillsman said. "You're teaching on the fly and at times that can get you into trouble a little bit."
Paced by point guard Tiana Mangakahia, a junior college transfer, and Miranda Drummond, a transfer from St. Bonaventure who redshirted last year, the Orange rebounded with home victories over Georgia Tech and No. 12 Florida State in early January.
The aggressive Mangakahia, a native of Australia who played JUCO ball at Hutchinson Community College, scored a season-high 44 points against the Yellow Jackets, going 20 of 21 from the free throw line, and Drummond followed with a career-high 38 points against the Seminoles.
The victory over Florida State kept Syracuse's home record unblemished after nine games.
"That was huge. It's protecting home court," Hillsman said. "We are improving. We're right there in every game we lost on the road."
Mangakahia started the season by registering double-digit assist totals in each of the first eight games and leads the nation in that category, averaging 10.3. Still, the overall inexperience continues to show and Mangakahia's penchant for turnovers (112) sometimes causes her coach angst.
"She can see the floor and she makes the team better," Hillsman said. "You don't want to rein her in."
The Orange have fallen back again with two straight setbacks on the road — 60-56 against North Carolina State and 72-67 to Miami on Thursday night — as they near the midpoint of the conference schedule.
The Hurricanes survived the all-around play of Mangakahia, who fell one rebound shy of notching the program's first points-rebounds-assists triple-double. She finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists.
"To be 14-5 with 10 newcomers probably ain't that bad," Hillsman said. "But it's not what you want. If we can get to the future, we'll be in great shape."
At least one breakthrough is at hand. Pittsburgh (9-10, 1-5) visits the Carrier Dome on Sunday, and the Orange women again will get a dose of the experience the Syracuse men are accustomed to. The university announced that more than 13,000 tickets have been purchased for the game, which will eclipse the program's single-game attendance mark of 11,021, set a year ago in a five-point loss to Notre Dame.
The Orange women are averaging 1,688 at home, while the men have drawn an average of just under 20,000 a game.
"It'll be great. The kids deserve it," Hillsman said. "At the end of the day, our conference is really, really balanced. It's going to come down to who can win those games against teams you're evenly matched with."
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