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Syracuse’s players have one non-negotiable set by acting head coach Vonn Read for every game: however possible, force 25 turnovers.
It’s one of the first statistics Read looks at and points out after each game, and it’s something the cemented starting five harps on throughout each contest. Against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the Orange ensured they began their trek toward that goal immediately. Less than three minutes after the opening tip-off, Syracuse already generated four turnovers from the Golden Retrievers.
In the next minute, SU settled into its 2-3 zone after applying a full-court press, guaranteeing UMBC wouldn’t settle into any sort of offensive rhythm in the opening quarter. The front court trio of Najé Murray, Teisha Hyman and Chrislyn Carr pressed Janee’a Summers at the top of the key. Summers saw one of the Retriever’s forwards cutting inside the zone, but Syracuse’s sturdy defense forced the ball to fly errand and out of bounds.
Too overwhelmed by the SU defense, UMBC saw its deficit balloon to 12-0 before Summers was able to find the Retrievers’ first basket.
“We have a really quick front line with our press with a back line with (Christianna Carr) and Alaysia (Styles),” Murray said. “It’s pretty hard to get the ball past half court. We prioritize that.”
The Orange entered Saturday’s game with a +6 turnover margin and were 28th in the country with 10.8 steals per game. SU has hit its non-negotiable forced turnover mark three times, coming close in all but two of its matchups. Once the team returned from the Bahamas and started winning, the Orange began enforcing the full court press more and more, utilizing its speedy, undersized roster to turn stolen possessions into quick runs to bury opponents.
Syracuse (8-4, 1-1 Atlantic Coast) pressed at least three defenders on nearly every possession, broke through passing lanes and stood tall against a struggling UMBC (1-9) team during its sixth straight win.
Murray said that while scouting the Golden Retrievers, the Orange noticed that, statistically, they weren’t good at breaking through presses. They put that in the scouting report and worked through it during the week hiatus before the game, putting Hyman and Chrislyn at the forefront of the press and letting everyone follow suit.
With the game firmly in Syracuse’s grasp at the end of the third quarter, Chrislyn pressed up on her defender near the 3-point line on the other side of the court. She allowed a pass inside to one of the UMBC guards, but promptly slid behind and poked the ball out, finishing the sequence with an uncontested layup.
“I just think our activity allowed us to be able to speed them up and force those turnovers,” Read said.
Syracuse allowed UMBC to make up some ground in the second quarter before the shots on offense really started to fall with consistency. But the Orange still applied the potent press that broke UMBC out of any sort of momentum it periodically found. In the waning minutes of the second quarter, Christianna’s eyes watched the top of the key as Alexia Nelson tried to pass over to Keelah Dixon. She jumped the path of the ball for a turnover and took it coast to coast for an uncontested layup.
A few possessions later, Hyman plucked the ball away at half court. In a move of desperation, Nelson fouled her so Syracuse couldn’t run the floor again for more fast break points, of which it finished with 19.
“We’ve got some quick and athletic players, we’re not very tall but we are athletic and we’ve got some mobile post players,” Read said.
Syracuse scored a fourth of its points off turnovers against UMBC. Read said there’s not one focal point that drives the full court press or the amount of turnovers the Orange force. The frontcourt trio have all been active at the top of the press. Then, if anyone slips past the initial line of defense, a strong defensive backcourt of Styles and Christianna is waiting for them, causing opponents to slow any driving momentum they have to allow all five SU players to settle back into their positions.
Read said keeping the pressure on teams throughout the game keeps SU’s players focused, especially in recent wins that have been effectively over by halftime. To end the third quarter, Styles flung her right arm up to intercept a pass down to the low post. Later on, Hyman stole the ball away again at the top of the key. Her outlet chest pass threaded through three Golden Retriever defenders and found a crashing Chrislyn down low for a layup, extending SU’s lead to 25.
It’s the sort of pressure the Orange were unable to generate during early-season losses to Notre Dame and USF, the sort of pressure that allowed teams like Minnesota and Buffalo to hang around long enough to overcome Syracuse in the Bahamas.
However, the Orange came into Saturday’s game leading the ACC in total steals and steals per game. They’ve used those forced turnovers to spark runs that have buried opponents in the last few games en route to blowout wins like the 40-point one over Clemson last Saturday, or to upset then-No. 18 Ohio State.
No Syracuse player has been a part of a pressing team that feeds off of forced turnovers and thrives in the transition and fast-break game. But each game, the Orange have gotten better, continuing to grow their explosive offense out of halted possessions and lockdown defense.
“This team can be a really good pressing team, they’re getting better each and every game with the things that we’re doing,” Read said. “They’re getting more comfortable.”
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