The depths of the holes teams often find themselves vary. Sometimes, a shovel is all that’s required for a rescue. Sometimes, only a bulldozer will do. Against Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday, the Army women’s team needed the latter. The bulldozer worked…until it ran out of gas.
The Black Knights, seeded No. 13 in the Sioux Falls region, overcame a 30-point second-quarter deficit, cutting the lead to 13, 67-54, late in the fourth quarter. That’s as close as they got, finally losing 73-56 at the Carrier Dome.
“I’m super impressed with them,” Army coach Dave Magarity told the Post-Standard. “It’s the first time I’ve seen them live. After watching as much film as I did this week, I had a really bad taste in my mouth. It was like, ‘Oh, boy. I don’t think people realize how good they are.’ Their pressure can be overwhelming at times.”
The early lead for No. 4 Syracuse was based on two rather obvious occurrences. The Lady Orange’s leading scorer, guard Alexis Peterson, was hot, at one point scoring 10 straight first-quarter points. Conversely, Army’s Kelsey Minato was damn-near invisible. The Black Knights’ leading scorer not only didn’t score a point in the first half, but was often unable to even touch the ball. Ordinarily, any Army possession includes Minato getting the ball at least twice, sometimes ending in a shot, other times a pass to an open teammate.
In that first quarter, Minato would go minutes barely coming near the ball. She remained in her customary position on the perimeter, but Syracuse’s defense was blanket-like, so much so that Army was called for two 10-second violations in the first 3½ minutes of the game, including on its first possession.
“It’s hard to simulate that in practice,” Magarity said. “You just can’t simulate that, unless I got dressed for practice and went out there.”
Minato missed all five of her first-quarter shots; her first points came on a 3-pointer with 6 minutes, 34 seconds left in the third quarter. But her teammates provided no help. The Black Knights got off only eight shots in the first quarter, hitting one. Eight shots. And eight turnovers. Hence, a 23-4 Syracuse lead.
“We faced that kind of defense, probably, never,” Magarity said. “And I mean that. It is just overwhelming at times. It’s relentless and it’s really very, very difficult to ever get comfortable [against]. They got into our head a little bit. More than a little bit.”
“We were more worried about once we got her contained and got someone assigned to her that the other players would make some shots,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said of Minato. “She makes her teammates just so much better. I thought that overall, we did a pretty good job defensively. Our players are really intense. We talk about playing really aggressive and we get our opponents uncomfortable. And it was our goal today to make them uncomfortable and not allow them to run a clean offense.”
Done. The second quarter began similarly. After Army’s Janae McNeal hit a jumper to start the quarter Syracuse ran off the next 13 points, taking a 36-6 lead. Army, 29-3, had a slight 8-3 run to end the first half, reducing the lead to 25, 39-14. Army remained competitive in the second half, but Peterson did just enough to keep Syracuse, 26-7, comfortably in the lead. She ended with a game-high 24 points, thanks mostly to her 13-of-13 shooting from the free-throw line.
“I think we felt very confident,” Peterson said. “We saw that we could get them playing faster than probably they wanted to. I thought we did a good job of getting after them early. I thought we kind of made her [Minato] uncomfortable. We tried to keep a lot of pressure on her. If that meant they’re coming down on a break, we weren’t going to leave her open.”
Magarity is a voter in the USA Today coaches poll, and he tries to remain abreast of coast-to-coast play. Syracuse isn’t Connecticut, Notre Dame, South Carolina or Baylor – all the No. 1 seeds in their respective brackets — but he believes they belong in the next level.
“I think they’re legitimately a top-10 team,” he said. “Maybe not in the [top] four. But that second wave. Whether it’s the next four, or the next four. I think they’re clearly a top-12.”
In 10 tournament appearances, this was Syracuse’s first-ever home game. It will face Albany State in the second round Sunday. No. 12 Albany State upset No. 5 Florida 61-59 at the Dome Friday.
Army outscored Syracuse, 42-34, in the second half after trailing 39-14 at halftime. Army’s 56 points was the most it ever scored in an NCAA Tournament game. The Black Knights scored 52 vs. Maryland in 2014 and 54 against Tennessee in 2006. Army four first-quarter points was its lowest single-quarter total of the year; the team’s 14 first-half points were also the lowest of the season.
Army’s 29 victory, 19-game winning streak and the Class of 2016’s 99 career wins are all program records.
After going scoreless in the first half, Minato – who shot 3 for 14 from the field – scored 10 in the second half – including two free throws with 10.4 seconds remaining in the game. That maintained her double-figure scoring streak at 112. She finished her career with 2,556 points, an academy record.
“It was tough. I didn’t get a ton of open shots,” she said. “The shots I did get I probably wasn’t balanced. I was kind of rushing it because of their pressure. I’ve seen face-guarding, but it wasn’t like that. They were a lot quicker, they were a lot more physical. And it kind of got me playing out of my comfort zone.”