UK women's notes: Orange's Sykes leaves tough shoes to fill

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 23, 2014 

Syracuse will be without its leading scorer and one of the top players in the Atlantic Coast Conference when it faces Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday night.

Orange Coach Quentin Hillsman confirmed on Sunday that sophomore guard Brittney Sykes will not play against the Cats after injuring her knee in the first round against Chattanooga.

"We don't know the extent of the injury," he said, "but she's not playing tomorrow. She's out for the game."

It's a tough blow for the Orange, who advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history on Saturday.

Hillsman did not discuss the injury other than to say it was a knee issue, adding that the 5-foot-9 McDonald's All-American will be assessed when the team returns to Syracuse.

It's likely that 5-foot-7 senior guard La'Shay Taft (6.1 points, 1.6 rebounds a game) will replace Sykes in the starting lineup, but it's going to be tough for just one player to replace her productivity.

Cats Coach Matthew Mitchell, who spoke on Sunday before Hillsman's announcement that Sykes was out, said she would be a big loss.

"She's a huge part of their team and she is a very explosive player and so certainly their dynamic will change," he said.

Sykes has started in 32 games for Syracuse this season and is the team's leading scorer (16.7 points) and its third-best rebounder (4.9 boards). She also adds 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals a game.

"We're a pretty deep basketball team," Hillsman said. "We have some players that are very serviceable in that area, they're just different players. Brittney is a unique player for us."

Brianna Butler, the Orange's second-leading scorer said it will be "kind of different" to play without Sykes out there.

"Brittney's a great offensive player and defensive player and just a great player for our team and she's had such an amazing year this year and such an impact on our team," Butler said.

Sykes likely will be on the Orange bench for the game cheering on her teammates.

"She's in good spirits and that's the most important thing for us," Hillsman said.

'Special kid, special player'

Syracuse's signature is its zone defense and nothing can erase that faster than an effective three-pointer shooter like UK's Jennifer O'Neill, who shoots 35.8 percent from there for her career.

But Hillsman doesn't need to spend much time watching film to know O'Neill could be a problem for the Orange.

"I've known Jen since she was a baby almost," he said. "She's a tremendous player and she gets better and better for them every year."

Hillsman was best friends with O'Neill's former high school and AAU coach Apache Paschall, who died in 2012 at age 37.

The Orange coach said he was one of the first people to hound O'Neill about her defensive intensity when she was a high school player.

"Not trying to play, but I probably know Jen better than Jen knows herself," he said. "I'm one that told her she needed to start to defending or she was never going to play at Kentucky."

It's been special seeing her grow into one of the nation's elite players, Hillsman said.

"She's a special player; I'm really proud of her," he said. "She's like one of my kids who's really doing well at this level. She's a special kid, a special player. She's really come a long way."

But at least for a day (Monday, specifically), he'd like to see her struggle a bit.

"I hope she has zero points," he said with a laugh.

Pre-game jitters?

Kentucky's two freshmen felt completely normal in the locker room before the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday morning.

But for Linnae Harper, veteran of multiple USA Basketball stints, it took just a few seconds on the UK bench to realize this game had a much different feel to it.

"I got real nervous," she said after the win over Wright State. "The feelings came out of no where."

She turned to Makayla Epps and said as much. Epps nodded in agreement.

"It's our first one," the freshman from Marion County said. "It's our first NCAA Tournament, we can be a little nervous."

Senior Bernisha Pinkett told them not to worry. "Just play," she said.

Another senior admitted she still gets nervous before NCAA Tournament games.

"In the SEC Tournament, you know even if you lose the first game and you're done, you still have the NCAA Tournament to play," forward Samarie Walker said. "Now if we lose, we're done. Being a freshman, you get afraid to mess up."

After Harper's 12 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes against the Raiders in the first round, Epps (who had a career-best seven assists) turned to Harper and said: "You're not playing like you're nervous. If you're nervous, get nervous every game."

Connections

Syracuse associate head coach Vonn Read spent three seasons at Kentucky from 2005-07, when he replaced Matthew Mitchell on Mickie DeMoss's staff after Mitchell went on to become the head coach at Morehead State.

Read coached for a season under Mitchell as well when the UK coach returned.

■ UK players O'Neill and Jelleah Sidney played AAU ball for Team Exodus with Syracuse's Butler, Taft, Taylor Ford and Shakeya Leary.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service