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Alaina Rice made her first start of the season, notching a season-high 37 minutes against No. 24 North Carolina, the toughest all-around team Syracuse has faced all season. Without Alaysia Styles, Rice was the Orange’s preferred center, a role that she has yet to feature in for the Orange this season.
After not scoring from the field in the first quarter and only attempting one jump shot, Rice — along with the rest of the Syracuse offense — shifted from inconsistent 3-point shooting and took brief control of close range shots due to gaps within the paint. Teisha Hyman scored the Orange’s first points in the paint seven minutes into the second quarter and Rice dribbled the ball slowly at center court.
Rice then bursted ahead with speed, barrelling through two UNC defenders to sink a wide-open layup, with the cohort of Tar Heel players shouting “that’s too easy.” But it was a turning point for Rice who scored nine second-half points, emerging with extended playing time in a 36-point loss that ended Syracuse’s then six-game win-streak.
“I play a little bit of everything,” Rice said on Nov. 16. “I rebound some, I pass some and shoot a little bit, doing all around stuff.”
Syracuse (8-5, 1-2 ACC) was without two of its starters in its 79-43 loss to No. 24 North Carolina (12-0, 2-0 ACC). This included Styles, the Orange’s center throughout the season, who, along with three other players, missed out on the loss due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Without Styles, the team’s rebounding leader, SU was outrebounded 63-37, with the Tar Heels matching as many defensive rebounds as the Orange had total boards.
When Syracuse entered the season with a transfer-heavy roster that would help establish the Orange’s identity as a fast-paced team filled with top shooters, it had one underlying issue — no true center. So acting head coach Vonn Read had to devise an unorthodox solution.
“It’s by committee,” Read said the day before the season opener on Nov. 9. “We have to have everybody open inside. It’s going to be a mentality where everybody has to be able to help and be able to rebound. That’s our most important thing, is being able to rebound.”
But against a UNC side that ranked third nationally with 46.6 rebounds per game heading into Thursday’s game and without Styles, the team was left without a replacement to match the Tar Heels’ commanding presence in the paint.
Syracuse ran its 5-out motion offense without a stay-at-home player inside the paint. All of its plays were instead focused strictly around the arc, to which UNC combated with a high-pressing zone defense. When Christianna Carr missed a 3-pointer near the right corner of the arc, UNC’s Deja Kelly was able to secure the defensive rebound with ease, as no Orange players challenged her below the basket. Kelly then accelerated all the way across the court into Syracuse’s end, taking the ball right into the paint to finish off a layup untouched, giving UNC an early 6-3 lead.
Defensively, not having 6-foot-3 Styles in the paint also created problems. The Tar Heels had 26 offensive rebounds — Syracuse had just nine. UNC’s Alyssa Ustby, who recorded her sixth double-double of the season with 12 and 14, points and rebounds, respectively — four assists shy of the program’s first triple-double — had three first-half offensive rebounds, and thrived off Syracuse’s limited personnel in the paint.
With 10 total rebounds at halftime, it took Ustby just 20 seconds after the halftime break to cap off the double-double. After Anya Poole’s missed layup, Ustby boxed out Hyman to secure the offensive rebound. She pivoted, dribbling once before banking a layup of her own, her fifth layup of the game.
Not having Styles mainly prevented Syracuse from relying on its typical kick-out plays, forcing its offense to change its strategy. Early in the second quarter, Rice found Hyman after stealing the ball from Ustby, Hyman dribbled into the paint near the free-throw line untouched.
With both Christianna and Chrislyn Carr on either side of her, Hyman stopped and opted for the mid-range jumper that missed, bouncing off the rim. She hadn’t scored at that point, showing a sign of desperation by taking the shot instead of kicking the pass out to its onrushing wingers. Given Syracuse’s pregame circumstances, Read said not having his usual starting five contributed to a lack of chemistry, which was completely exploited by UNC.
“No Alaysia inside, and she does a really good job of getting around and fighting,” Read said postgame. “I thought our kids played extremely hard. We just got worn down.”
Regardless, Syracuse’s stretch of games does not get any easier, with each of its 15 remaining games slated against ACC opponents. This loss against one of the ACC’s toughest teams showed its lack of depth, and that missing key starters are not easily replaceable.
“We had players playing in different positions that they’re not having played in and having players that they haven’t been consistently playing with,” Read said. “We just weren’t able to execute.”
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