LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Another basket or defensive stop could’ve made the difference for Syracuse.
Those opportunities just weren’t there for the sixth-seeded Orange in the closing minutes against Kentucky and their NCAA tournament run ended with a 64-59 loss to the third-seeded Wildcats on Monday night.
Disappointing as the loss was for Syracuse (23-10), players and coach Quentin Hillsman took heart in slowing Kentucky enough to give themselves a chance down the stretch. But the Wildcats came up with the key basket or defensive stop that seemed to elude the Orange.
“We wanted to make it a great game,” said reserve guard Alexis Peterson, who scored 12 points. “We knew if we stayed in the two- to four-point range, we could compete. We just didn’t have enough to make the run.”
It was a determined effort for the Orange, who played their first game after star guard Brittney Sykes injured her right knee on Saturday. They got 15 points from Brianna Butler, 13 from Briana Day and outrebounded Kentucky 41-38.
Despite that, Sykes’ absence left huge voids to fill with scoring and rebounding.
“Obviously, Brittney is a great piece of our offense,” Peterson said. “We not only wanted to win it for Brittney but for our seniors as well. We definitely missed Brittany a lot tonight.”
But Syracuse also couldn’t get out of its own way at times, committing 23 turnovers leading to 21 Kentucky points. The Orange also made just 21 of 63 from the field (33 percent), including just 5 of 25 from long range.
So while their zone succeeded in frustrating Kentucky inside and outside, the Orange’s failure to take advantage left them with something to build on after finally earning their first NCAA tournament win on Saturday.
“Obviously, I really wanted to win the basketball game,” Hillsman said, “and I really wanted to win for our university, for our kids and you hate to have the feeling like you let your kids down in some way.
“But I think that overall, we just really had a great weekend for our program. … I thought it was two very good games.”
Bria Goss made 11 of 12 free throws for 17 points to lead third-seeded Kentucky (26-8), which moves on to the round of 16 in the Notre Dame Regional. The Wildcats will face the winner between California and Baylor.
DeNesha Stallworth added 13 points and Kastine Evans 11 for the Wildcats, who outscored the Orange 32-28 in the paint. Goss’ foul shooting symbolized the difference as Kentucky shot 12 more free throws than Syracuse, making 18 of 28 while the Orange were 12 of 16.
Kentucky wasn’t exactly smooth despite leading 32-25 at halftime of a rough and rugged game. Although the Wildcats played a fast, aggressive pace on both ends, they missed a bunch of shots down low and forced outside jumpers against the zone.
They had to work even harder in the second half as Syracuse fought back to 46-44 with 11½ minutes remaining in the game. Day helped by scoring eight straight points early in the half, while the Orange defense forced the Wildcats into mistakes.