SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse lost its last home game during the regular season, a big disappointment for coach Quentin Hillsman and his seniors. But his Orange still finished high enough in the national rankings to land as a host for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and those seniors now have a chance to win their final game in the Carrier Dome.
And the Orange have proved there’s no place like home in March. When they hosted three years ago they made it to the national championship game, losing to UConn. Now, after opening the tournament with a victory over Fordham , third-seeded Syracuse (25-8) faces Summit League champion South Dakota State (27-6) on Monday night, a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake.
It’s the first meeting between the teams.
“If you lose, you go home,” Hillsman said. “We want people to still be able to see us, to watch us on TV, so it doesn’t have to be the last time they see us. We are going to do everything in our power that it isn’t the last time you see us play this year.”
Syracuse beat 14th-seeded Fordham 70-49 in the first round Saturday behind a near triple-double by guard Tiana Mangakahia, who had 21 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. The No. 6 Jackrabbits held off No. 11 Quinnipiac 76-65 in the other Carrier Dome matchup with Summit League Player of the Year Macy Miller leading the way with a game-high 28 points and 11 rebounds. The Jackrabbits shot 40 percent from the field and made 20 of 24 free throws.
After losing to Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, Hillsman gave the Orange a good dose of rest for the big tournament — no contact, no scrimmages — and it took them a quarter against Fordham to knock off the rust.
“We hadn’t played a real game in two weeks, so getting back into the flow of things was a little bit difficult,” said Mangakahia, second nationally with 8.4 assists per game. “After that first quarter and after the half we knew this is the tournament, it’s going to be up and down, and we had to just come out and give it our all. We started doing things that we do right.”
Syracuse turned up the intensity in the second quarter, holding the Rams to just three made baskets and outscoring them 24-12 to open an 11-point halftime lead. The Orange scored 22 points off turnovers and held Fordham to seven points in the final quarter.
It was an impressive showing after the layoff.
“I think it’s extremely important, especially during this time of the year,” Mangakahia said. “A lot of teams sometimes take their seed for granted and come out there and don’t do as well. I think we knew that, so we just had to focus and not let an upset happen, and I think that helped us.”
The Jackrabbits present another big challenge. They’ve won 17 in a row, they travel well, and they have that band.
“I’d say it makes a huge difference,” Miller said. “It still gives me chills every time I’m on the court and I hear a school song being played. They do a great job cheering and firing up our crowd.”
Added senior guard Madison Guebert: “Jackrabbit nation comes out everywhere we go, and even being a long way from South Dakota, here we had tons of fans out there. Their constant energy and their cheering adds an extra fuel for us, and they give us that extra spark when we need it.”
Other things to know when South Dakota State meets Syracuse in the second round:
Syracuse is asking fans to turn out for the big game with a “Pack the Loud House” campaign: “Help send your Orange to Portland and to the Sweet 16!” Just under 3,000 fans turned out for the first-round game.
To be sure, the Orange relish playing in front of the home crowd. Last year they lost in the first round to Oklahoma State on the road.
“It was a big difference compared to last year. We had to travel down to Mississippi,” Mangakahia said. “Playing at home and sleeping in your own bed, just that kind of stuff is a great feeling. The fans were great. Knowing that we matter to them is a good feeling.”
South Dakota State has had 13 20-win seasons in the last 15 years and is 3-8 in the NCAA Tournament. This is the highest seed they’ve had in nine appearances, and their performance on the glass against Quinnipiac was key in their first-round triumph. South Dakota State outrebounded Quinnipiac 49-34 and is now 23-1 when holding opponents to 70 points or less as it strives to make the Sweet 16.
“The team is hungry, we’re playing well, we’ve got the pieces or the things it would take to play at that (Sweet 16) level,” South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston said. “You really have to play well to get to that game.”
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