Last year, the Syracuse Titans saw their season end at the hands of the Skyridge Falcons in the second round of the 6A tournament.
The two teams met again Tuesday evening at the Dee Events Center, and while the round in the tournament was different this time around, the final result was not.
By a final score of 52-34 the Falcons — who lost in the quarterfinals the last two seasons — cruised to a comfortable victory over Syracuse to advance through to the 6A semifinals. Skyridge held the lead for nearly 28 minutes, leading by as much as 24 points.
Skyridge coach Shaylee Nielsen said that “controlling controllables” was the message heading into the game, but the Falcons ended up controlling the controllables and just about everything else.
“We put a lot of effort into our scouting report this week, so they came prepared and executed,” Nielsen said.
The teams looked pretty even through eight minutes, as Skyridge held only a one point lead after the first quarter, but the gap widened quickly over the next quarter of play. Thanks to increased intensity in its press, Skyridge started the second quarter on a 13-0 run and never looked back.
The Falcons, who shot 50% from the field in the second period, held the Titans to just one made field goal and 7% shooting in the same quarter. The final tally of the period was 15-3 in favor of Skyridge.
When asked what led to the dominant second quarter, Skyridge senior Donya Perkins said that her coaches just told the team to be themselves.
“We were told to come in and play our game,” Perkins said. “(They told us) to take our ‘bulldog’ and use that, and our defense, to take control of the game and then let our offense come to us.”
The Falcons used their full court pressure and overall defensive intensity to speed up Syracuse. The pressure resulted in 17 turnovers and 23% shooting by the Titans.
Nielsen said playing Syracuse hard the full 94 feet allowed her team to play loose.
“We did a great job in our press,” Nielsen said. “We were really trying to contain (Avery Sanders) because she does such a good job and she’s so fast. We really focused on trying to get the ball out of her hands. We got the stops and it allowed us to relax on the offensive end.”
If not for Sanders, the Titans would’ve found themselves facing a much larger deficit at the final buzzer. The Syracuse junior finished with a game-high 22 points, including a 5-for-5 shooting clip from the 3-point line.
Other than Sanders, only two other Titans managed to make a field goal.
After fortifying itself on defense, Skyridge managed to create easy baskets in both the half court and in transition. The Falcons finished the game with 11 fast break points and 24 points in the paint, recording 12 assists on 20 made field goals.
Led by Shae Toole (13 points), three Skyridge players reached double-figure scoring. Senior Cambree Blackham stuffed the stat sheet for the Falcons, finishing with 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals.
“Every game, someone new steps up for us,” Nielsen said of her team’s offensive performance. “They all find a way to contribute and then it’s just a bonus on which one ends up being the one to hit the shots. They all play for each other and it makes it really nice for me as a coach.”
By the middle of the third quarter, both teams displayed contrasting body languages. Syracuse looked defeated, while Skyridge carried itself like a semifinal team.
Even when the game was close at the start, the Falcons looked like a group of players that was genuinely having fun playing together for the full 32 minutes.
“We have personalities on our team that help with (keeping the mood light), because some players are much more serious and uptight, so it helps those players get into a flow,” Nielsen said.
“We talked on the bus about how our team is able to have fun, but they play so hard, it doesn’t ever get to goofiness. They’re able to channel that crazy energy into a positive on the court.”
Following their quarterfinal win, the Falcons have ensured that they’ll get to have their fun for at least one more game. They’ll face Davis on Thursday for a chance to play in the 6A title game and it’s safe to say they’re pretty excited for the challenge.
“It feels so good,” Perkins said. “Two years we’ve gotten knocked out in the quarterfinals, so to finally get over that and make it to the semis, it’s honestly the best feeling in the world. I’m so excited to keep it going.”