UK's women's outside efficiency a plus versus Syracuse's 'deadly' zone

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 23, 2014 

  • What: NCAA Tournament Notre Dame Regional, second round | When: 6:30 p.m. Monday | Where: Memorial Coliseum

    Records: No. 6 seed Syracuse 23-9, No. 3 seed Kentucky 25-8 | Series: UK leads 2-0

    Last meeting: UK won 83-63 on Dec. 21, 1995, in Cincinnati. | TV: ESPN2 | Radio: WLAP-AM 630

    Tickets: Reserved tickets are $22 for adults (ages 19-64), $15 for youth (0-18) and for seniors (ages 65+)

    Purchase: Online at ukathletics.com, in person at Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or by calling the UK ticket office at 1-800-928-2287

  • Matchups

    NO. 10 KENTUCKY (25-8)

    Starters: Bria Goss, 5-10, Jr., G (9.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, So., PG; (9.0 ppg, 3.1 apg, 2.2 rpg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Sr. (8.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Sr., F (9.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg); DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Sr., F (12.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg).

    Key reserves: Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, Jr., G (13.0 ppg, 2.3, 2.8 apg); Azia Bishop, 6-4, Jr., F (5.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Makayla Epps, 5-10, Fr., G (4.4 ppg); Linnae Harper, 5-8, Fr., G (6.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Sr., G (3.5 ppg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, Jr. (3.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg).

    SYRACUSE (23-9)

    Starters: Rachel Coffey, 5-7, Sr., G (5.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.3 rpg); Brianna Butler, 5-11, So., G (14.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg); La'Shay Taft, 5-7, Sr., G (6.1 ppg); Isabella Slim, 5-0, Fr., F (3.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg); Shakeya Leary, 6-3, Sr., C (8.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg).

    Key reserves: Alexis Peterson, 5-7, Fr., G (2.7 ppg); Taylor Ford, 6-0, So., F (5.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Cornelia Fondren, 5-8, So., F (3.6 ppg); Briana Day, 6-4, Fr., C (5.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg).

Does the athletics director at Syracuse mandate his basketball teams play a zone?

Is there some sort of city ordinance prohibiting man-to-man defenses?

No need for that, Orange Coach Quentin Hillsman said with a smile as his team prepares to meet Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday night.

"Every day when I look over my left or my right shoulder out of my office, I see all of those banners lined up," Hillsman said.

It's hard to ignore the success of the 2-3 zone with Jim Boeheim down the hall and his success on the wall.

"You sit there and you start to watch it and you start to break it down," Hillsman said. "There are not a lot of ways you can really score on the zone."

So the 2-3 zone has become a staple of the Syracuse women's program, too, and it's led to some success this season, including helping the Orange their first NCAA Tournament victory in program history this week.

"It's been great for us and we've been successful running it," he said.

When Hillsman needs tips on how to deal with an opponent, especially a high-powered offensive opponent, he doesn't hesitate to chat with Boeheim, to compare defensive notes.

"I can walk down there every day and get a 2-3 zone clinic," he continued. "It's been good for me because I've been able to watch it and watch it be successful."

Going all in on a 2-3 zone isn't an easy task and it's not for those with queasy stomachs. A team might hit three or four three-pointers and other coaches would abandon the zone ship.

Not Hillsman. "My motto is play a better zone."

He guessed Syracuse has played only about 10 possessions of man-to-man defense in the past two seasons.

Kentucky (25-8) would love to be the team to pull the Orange out of what they do best. The Cats will get their chance on Monday night with a trip to a potential third straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line for them.

UK will be hitting a Syracuse team that will be without its star player, Brittney Sykes, who will miss the game after a knee injury in the first-round win over Chattanooga.

The day before her season-ending injury, Sykes herself discussed how a zone is about more than just one person.

"It's everyone moving as one unit; everyone's moving at one time," the guard said. "One mess up can mess up a zone. For us to all be committed, to be one on the court in 2-3 zone. It's what makes a team deadly."

The Cats will provide a big test for Syracuse's zone.

Kentucky has taken its offensive efficiency to a new level this post-season, making 46.6 percent of its shots from the field in four tournament games, including 41.6 percent from three-point range.

"We've had some success against, but it certainly hasn't been automatic this year," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "There have been times where we've struggled against the 2-3 zone."

The idea of playing a well-drilled zone makes forward Samarie Walker a little claustrophobic. It can be frustrating for inside players because they have to work a little harder.

"We might not always get the ball on the block which is where we want to get the ball, it's a lot more movement for us but I think by now we should be used to it because that is what we got played most by in the SEC," she said.

For some of Kentucky's shooters, the zone elicits a different emotion.

"I perk up a little bit" against a zone, said Jennifer O'Neill, the Cats' top outside threat, who made all four of her tries in the first round.

But more importantly, the team can focus on beating one single defense and not worry about constantly changing defenses, she said. "We know what they're going to play and now we just have to go out and perform and execute."

Teams have been able to score on the Orange from outside, but the goal this season has been to outshoot foes from three-point range, as Syracuse hits 31.7 percent from there, Hillsman said.

That's where Kentucky's defensive pressure — which it's garnered its own reputation for — could come in handy.

"The key with Syracuse, which is what we do with a lot of people, you just try to disrupt their patterns," said Mitchell, whose team is holding opponents to 29.3 percent from long range. "You try the best that you can, keep them from getting the three-point shot that they want."

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

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