Women's Basketball

Freshman Sykes’ 50-foot heave at buzzer gives Syracuse 60-57 win over St. John’s

Early in December, mired in a small slump, Brittney Sykes vowed to do whatever it took to raise her shooting percentage – even if it meant hitting the gym in the middle of the night.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sykes’ determination paid off.

With 2.8 seconds to play and Syracuse and St. John’s tied at 57, the freshman guard from Newark, N.J., stole an inbounds pass from former high school teammate Nadirah McKenith. Sykes quickly hoisted the ball toward the basket from 50 feet away, just beating the buzzer. The ball banked in off of the backboard to give Syracuse (16-2, 4-1 Big East) the 60-57 victory over the Red Storm (9-8, 3-2).

“They were in the half court and we went man to man,” Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “Brittney made a big play, one dribble and she banked it in. Big shot, big win for us, huge on the road.”

The dramatic win gives Syracuse another solid feather in its cap as the NCAA Tournament draws near. It allows the Orange to quickly leave the memory of Saturday’s 87-62 setback at No. 3 Connecticut behind.

Despite a shortage of down-to-the wire games in recent weeks, the Orange claimed to be prepared for tense moments due to situational preparation in practice and the team’s abundance of veteran leadership despite a young roster. Wednesday afternoon, it showed.

Down 57-53 after SJU player Aliyyah Handford’s bucket with 1:44 to play, the Orange needed a near-perfect closing stretch to come away with the road win. SU delivered, coming through with big plays in a sequence highlighted by a steal by senior guard Carmen Tyson-Thomas and four free throws by Kayla Alexander that tied the game at 57.

In the game, the reliable Alexander contributed 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes. She’s now just two points away from tying former forward Nicole Michael for the most in program history. But just as, if not more, important to the outcome of the game was Alexander’s complement inside, junior Shakeya Leary, Hillsman said.

Leary produced 14 points and six boards in 21 minutes, including a stretch midway through the second half where she scored eight consecutive Syracuse points. Leary scored at will at times, and her strong play allowed for Alexander to get plenty of rest, Hillsman said.

“Shakeya was rolling,” Hillsman said. “She really earned it and deserved the right to stay on the floor. She was the best player in the gym for five possessions, and she and Kayla did an awesome job.”

After jumping off to an early 8-1 lead and maintaining a six-point advantage at the break, Syracuse fell behind early in the second half as SJU opened with a 13-3 run to take a 37-33 lead. This would match the Red Storm’s largest lead of the game, though, as the Orange battled back to take a 49-43 lead on a Leary jumper with 7:37 to play.

The back-and-forth battle continued from there, as St. John’s immediately embarked on a 7-0 run, taking the lead on McKenith’s jumper with 5:36 remaining. St. John’s held a one-point lead at this point, and the stage was set for the dramatic conclusion and Sykes’ heroics.

Next up for Syracuse is a trip to face Villanova on Saturday evening for the final stop on a three-game road swing. If the Orange hadn’t stepped up down the stretch against St. John’s, the outcome could have swung the other way. But SU did just enough, and now sits tied for third with Connecticut at 4-1 in Big East play, a half-game behind the second-place Wildcats (15-2, 4-0).

“It’s huge, obviously, in the conference,” Hillsman said. “It keeps you right up there, keeps you in the mix. Now we’ve just got to regroup and get ready for Villanova.”

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