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Najé Murray pivoted her momentum toward the Syracuse basketball across the court, a minute and a half into the third quarter. The Orange sat comfortably ahead of Monmouth with a 24-point lead, but the aggressive style of play that Christianna Carr said the team utilizes on defense wasn’t out of Murray yet. She flung her right arm out to deflect a pass across the top of the key, regaining SU’s possession. The Orange missed the ensuing shot, but the next time the Hawks got the ball, Teisha Hyman came up with a steal of her own, translating that into a mid-range jumper.
The consecutive steals started a trend in the third quarter, one that finished with Monmouth sitting at 22 turnovers. Hyman later got a loose ball and found Chrislyn Carr all alone in the paint for a layup. And by the time Eboni Walker came up with a steal and assist to Chrislyn of her own, the game was out of hand for the Hawks.
On Wednesday, Syracuse (1-0) stepped up on defense, holding Monmouth (0-1) to below 30% shooting from the field. In its exhibition win against Kutztown, the Hawks shot 40.9% from the field but barely surpassed the 20% mark from deep. In the Carrier Dome, Syracuse made sure the Hawks didn’t sniff that success, locking down top scorers like Stella Clark and Belle Kranbuhl.
“I thought our defense was really, really good,” acting head coach Vonn Read said. “We’re really active. We have good team speed. We play well in the zone.”
Prior to the season-opening win, center Alaysia Styles said the first thing Syracuse’s needed to do is “go fast and be a little bit chaotic” with enough structure to not let the game speed upon them. Chrislyn said that despite the dominating win, the 21 turnovers need to be cut down, but it’s a product of the game getting too fast. Playing in this style of offense became a little too much at times throughout the win, Chrislyn said.
But a chaotic, yet structured approach, when executed, turned into 33 forced turnovers and 42 points off those turnovers. The aggressive line of defense, one that began to press at halfcourt various times throughout Wednesday night, is a product of the want the team has to play defense, Hyman said. Syracuse builds its offense off its aggressive approach. Halting an opponent’s possession before they get a second or third pass off and can penetrate inside leads to offense such as the 35 fastbreak points seen in SU’s opening win.
“The way we play on offense, our speed, we want to do the same thing on defense,” Chrislyn said. “Being aggressive on offense makes it more fun and easier to get steals.”
Hyman is one of three returning players for Syracuse. She along with Ava Irvin and Priscilla Williams have been valuable to new players in helping understand how the program, and Read, work, Styles said. What Hyman wants to do is play defense. She spent her time recovering from her second ACL tear focusing on defense. Whether it was disrupting a play, earning a steal or simply grabbing the ball away from the opponent, Hyman wants her defense to be a focal point this year.
Halfway through the first quarter, Hyman introduced that to the Syracuse fans who haven’t seen her in two years. The Orange’s front three guards were beginning to creep up their initial line of defense the more they became settled in. A possession after a turnover on Monmouth’s Brianna Livingston, Hyman poked the ball away from Clark over the block ‘S’ logo. Chrislyn sprinted to the other side, easily received a bounce pass and cashed in an uncontested layup.
“We forced 33 turnovers, and that’s a number that I was looking for to see if we could be able to do that,” Read said. “Because if we can do that, we can create energy.”
It wasn’t just the guards and forwards who saw success on defense, even if Read said the team has good rebounding and defensive guards like Hyman. Styles played the second-most minutes of any Orange players and translated that into eight points and three rebounds. She and Eboni Walker aren’t used to playing inside, but they both stood tall under the hoop when guarding a small Hawks frontcourt attempting to drive.
Monmouth did score more than half its points from in the paint, but it was a dent far too small to influence Syracuse’s eventual 41-point win. In the third quarter, Monmouth’s energy began to wane. Read said the team needs to play fast, and his players need to lock down the zone and translate turnovers into fast breakpoints. They did all that Wednesday, and it showed on the faces of Monmouth, who scored just three points in the third quarter.
By the time Nyah Wilson poked out the ball from in front of Clark, the Hawks were too tired to catch up with an eventual layup. The errand passes increased, and Read switched to a bench-dominated court. Read is a defensive guy, Hyman said, and that showed Wednesday night.
“Our aggressiveness turns into us being quick up the floor, and it gets us a lot more open shots when we need it,” Christianna said. “It helped us a lot because we’re a pressing team.”
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