Head coach Quentin Hillsman sensed frustration mounting in point guard Rachel Coffey midway through last season.
Bombarded with constant instructions from the coaching staff, Coffey veered away from playing her game and looked lost on the court. Turnovers and missed shots piled up as Coffey was out of her element.
Then Hillsman had an idea.
He decided to completely back off Coffey and let her play her game.
The fix worked to perfection, as the point guard emerged as Syracuse’s star player over the final five games and carried the Orange to a berth in the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
“He used to take me out every time I made a mistake,” Coffey said. “Then he just let me play. I looked at it as this was my chance to play so I need to take advantage of it.”
That’s exactly what she did. In the WNIT quarterfinal against Toledo, Coffey exploded for 23 points, including six three pointers, and six assists.
Down by three with less than 10 seconds to go, Coffey knew she had to make a play. She burst left, crossed over to her right hand and pulled up for a fadeaway 30-footer.
The year before, Coffey attempted a remarkably similar shot. Down by three against the same team in the same round of the WNIT, she unleashed a three in the waning seconds. That time, the shot clanked off the rim, as the Orange came up just short.
When given a second chance, though, with redemption on her mind, Coffey drained the three-pointer, tying the game at 64. The Orange went on to win in thrilling fashion, 74-73, before falling to James Madison in the semifinals.
The opportunity to play her game without constantly worrying about making a mistake paved the way for a dominant WNIT performance for Coffey, who averaged 11.8 points per game in SU’s WNIT run compared to 4.7 during the regular season.
“Once I let her play her game and backed off so much instruction, she started playing better,” Hillsman said. “That was an easy fix. Step off, let her play and leave her alone.”
After only scoring in double digits once through mid-January, Coffey finished in double figures seven times down the stretch and became Syracuse’s most reliable scoring option.
“It was really humbling to know that I’m finally doing something here and contributing,” Coffey said. “It just really felt good that I was able to make that shot after what happened last season.”
After her breakout performance late last season, Coffey has now solidified her spot as SU’s starting point guard going into her junior year. Hillsman said it is Coffey’s job unless someone takes it from her.
Senior guard Carmen Tyson-Thomas said Coffey stepped into a leadership role during the WNIT last season and carried Syracuse toward the end of the season.
“We had to find leadership from somewhere and you can’t just get it through your seniors,” Tyson-Thomas said. “You have to have a floor general. Seeing her come into that role has been amazing. It’s something that happened right before all of our eyes, and she stepped up and she’s been big for us.”
On a roster full of seniors, Tyson-Thomas said Coffey is now the unquestioned leader on the court. Tyson-Thomas said the fact that Hillsman was a point guard himself makes Coffey’s job especially demanding because he expects a lot out of his star point guard.
Despite these high expectations, Hillsman plans to continue to use a hands-off approach when coaching Coffey. Her instant offense and command of the floor were present in stretches last season, but this year Hillsman hopes to see that productivity every game from his starting point guard.
“She really has matured into that role,” Hillsman said. “I think that as we’re going forward, her maturity and role are going to be the difference in a few games.
“I’m just really happy that she got going at the end of the year, and hopefully that helps her confidence going into this season.”