“They can score from multiple spots on the floor,” Hillsman said. “When you have players that are that multi-dimensional, you have a big luxury.”
While fourth-ranked Florida State has relied on its stellar tandem of Leticia Romero and Brittany Brown to lead the Seminoles to the top echelon of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hillsman thinks his No. 21 Orange has the best all-around backcourt in women’s college basketball.
Peterson, a senior, is averaging 23.6 points, third nationally, and Sykes is 22nd at 19.4, making the pair the highest-scoring backcourt in the nation. They’re also the top two scorers in the ACC and have combined for 113 3-pointers, 273 assists with 158 turnovers, 148 steals, and 293 rebounds.
“Stats don’t lie,” Sykes said. “We’ve been doing the same numbers since the beginning of the season.”
Hillsman’s pregame smile is a validation of what he preached in the preseason.
“Going into the season he talked to us numerous times, told us that we could be the best backcourt in the country, that nobody in the country can really score like we can,” said Sykes, a redshirt senior who’s had two operations on her right knee. “We’ve proven it night in and night out.”
Syracuse has defeated four ranked opponents behind Peterson and Sykes, but the Orange also has lost to three ranked ACC teams - Louisville, Florida State, and Duke - as well as Top 25 foes Ohio State and DePaul.
In the head-to-head matchup at Florida State in January, the Seminoles led the whole game and prevailed 77-58: Romero and Brown combined for 20 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists with nine turnovers, and five steals; Peterson and Sykes had 36 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists with 14 turnovers, and three steals.
“I think we’re really good,” said Peterson, who set a program single-game record with 45 points in a victory at North Carolina State in mid-January. “It’s something that we work at, take pride in. We want to come out and perform at a high level, night in and night out.”
Hillsman has transformed the Orange into a solid contender in his 11th season with the team. Last year, Syracuse finished 30-8 and made it to the NCAA Tournament title game, a program first, before falling to perennial power UConn.
This season has been something of a roller-coaster as Hillsman had to replace a core of veteran players, including Brianna Butler, a deadly 3-point shooter who was picked on the second round of the WNBA draft.
“We lost a lot of depth, hybrid players who could play multiple positions,” Hillsman said. “You could sub any one of those players at three or four positions.”
Syracuse (18-8, 9-4 ACC) got off to a rocky start with three losses in the first seven games, fell out of the rankings for a month, and has re-entered the AP Top 25 with a late-season surge of five wins in six games.
The Orange has thrived at home and is riding an 18-game winning streak in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse faces one of its most difficult opponents on Sunday evening when No. 7 Notre Dame (24-3, 12-1 ACC) visits.
The Irish, alone now in first place in the ACC, are wary.
“Peterson’s really having a phenomenal year and Sykes is a tough matchup for us,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Yeah, they’re a very good team.”
The Irish are 30-2 against Syracuse all-time, the last victory coming in the ACC title game last season. Avenging that loss with the postseason looming would do wonders for the Orange’s collective psyche.
“It would be huge,” said Peterson, who ranks second all-time at Syracuse with 1,821 career points and 542 assists. “It would be very good for our program, very good for this team’s confidence going into tournament play. It’s a great opportunity.”
More AP college basketball at www.collegebasketball.ap.org
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina contributed.
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