Kayla Alexander sat in Manley Field House dressed in sweaty workout clothes. She placed her water bottle down, and the game face she wore for months transformed into a giddy grin.
Just three days removed from Syracuse’s painful loss to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Alexander was in light spirits. Her goal at the start of the season was to qualify for the tournament, and that’s exactly what the Orange did.
But something didn’t sit right. Alexander yearned for something more.
A tournament win.
“Yeah, it’s a success, but at the same time, I felt like we underachieved,” Alexander said. “I feel like if you ask any of our teammates, they’ll say that. We had too much talent.”
After winning 23 regular-season games — a school record after 29 contests — Syracuse wasn’t satisfied with just making the tournament. Alexander said the team expected to reel off three or more wins and make a deep run. Her jovial expression soured as she talked about the team’s loss. She and the rest of the Orange look back on the season with mixed emotions, relishing all they achieved but disappointed by what they failed to accomplish.
The talent became evident early in the season. The Orange ripped off two seven-game winning streaks and enclosing just one loss, blowing teams out by laughable margins and finishing down-to-the-wire games it may not have a year ago.
Head coach Quentin Hillsman had the luxury of starting three freshmen for most of the season in Brittney Sykes, Brianna Butler and Cornelia Fondren. He also had three seniors in Alexander, Elashier Hall and Carmen Tyson-Thomas, who wanted to ensure this year ended differently than the previous three.
Alexander thought hard about what it was like playing with Tyson-Thomas and Hall for four years. Moments later, her eyes lit up and she set the time machine back to 2009, when she committed to Syracuse and first met Tyson-Thomas.
Alexander noticed something peculiar about Tyson-Thomas’ eyes. They were light brown and looked a little funky. Alexander said Tyson-Thomas insisted the bizarrely tinted eyes were her natural color every time it came up in conversation. More than a year later, Alexander noticed something different about her teammate’s eyes. They were dark brown, not light, and didn’t look as mystical.
The act was up. They were colored contacts.
“I was like ‘Really, Carmen? Why would you lie about something like that?’ But that’s Carmen. Always doing stupid stuff,” Alexander said with a chuckle.
That kind of chemistry and comfort — manifested via contrasting personalities — had been in the works for three seasons. One piece of the puzzle was Alexander, a Canadian superstar who Sykes dubbed a “gentle giant.” Her classmate Hall was a sharpshooting guard who donned a new hairstyle for what seemed like every game. Finally, there was Tyson-Thomas, a rebound-obsessed and tattoo-covered swingman who led the team vocally.
Alexander said Tyson-Thomas named her Big East sixth-man trophy Carlos II. She already had a teddy bear named Carlos I, so giving the trophy the moniker Carlos II was only natural.
“Carmen does her own thing,” Alexander said. “One thing I can definitely say is that we all have different personalities. Completely different.”
After struggling to get over the hump the last three years, it was time for Syracuse’s unified core group to accomplish its previously unobtainable goal of making the NCAA tournament.
The Orange finished third in the Big East and advanced to the conference tournament semifinals before falling to Connecticut. Hillsman said he never had to ask for effort from his players. They all bought into the system from day one.
“I thought we had a tremendous season,” Hillsman said. “I think you can point to a lot of different games and say that this person stepped up and won the game for us.”
One of those wins came in Hollywood fashion against St. John’s on Jan. 23. With the game knotted at 57 and 2.8 seconds to go, Sykes stole the ball and banked in an improbable shot from beyond half court at the buzzer to give Syracuse the win.
“Just to be a freshman and to hit that shot and make history, it was pretty cool,” Sykes said. “It’s going be talked about all four years that I’m here and even when I’m gone, so it feels kind of good.”
With that win, nestled between victories over tournament-bound DePaul and Louisville, on the Orange’s resume, the goal the three seniors had coveted for four years finally materialized.
Syracuse earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and was the favorite against No. 10-seed Creighton. But the Bluejays outplayed the Orange on Saturday, causing the trio’s last hurrah to come to a screeching, stunning halt.
“When it first happened, I was in shock,” Alexander said. “I didn’t have any emotion. You go to bed, you can’t sleep. You just replay the game over and over in your head.”